California's red-legged frog has become a focal point in the battle over endangered species management.© Jennifer Morgan/Jumping Frog Research Center
Now surviving in scattered areas around California, the red-legged frog was declared threatened in 1996 under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Three years later, environmentalists won a court decision ordering the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to draw the required critical habitat boundaries. The resulting effort produced the second-largest critical habitat area ever mapped—4.1 million acres—and since then, the frog has transformed from a treasured icon of Gold Rush California into a symbol of the ongoing fight over federal species protection.
For much of this year, Congress has been mulling ways of reshaping the ESA, and critical habitat rules have formed one of the liveliest battlegrounds. The House Committee on Resources, where many conservation bills originate, is chaired by California Republican Richard Pombo, a former rancher who has called critical habitat requirements "one of the most perverse shortcomings" of the ESA.
Pombo also decries the notion that, for several years, court decisions have dictated most efforts at species protection, including those of the red-legged frog. After the first lawsuit resulted in habitat maps, a group of California homebuilders quickly filed their own suit, successfully challenging FWS’s economic analysis for the project.
Now the agency is trudging once more through the process, essentially re-proposing the same maps while echoing Pombo’s claims. The ESA, the agency argues, already provides a range of programs promoting cooperation with landowners, while regulatory measures like critical habitat only consume its dwindling budget without getting results.
The ESA requires landowners to consult the feds before developing land within critical habitat boundaries, but only if a federal connection exists, such as federal funding or permitting requirements. Brian Kennedy, a spokesperson for the House Resources Committee, argues that such rules only create counterproductive animosity, and that critical habitat should be abolished in favor of case-by-case collaborations with landowners.
But biologists and conservation groups point out statistics showing that species with critical habitat designations are consistently more likely to be recovering than those without them. "I’ve never seen that argument [for discarding critical habitat] made by any scientist of any stature," says Robert Stack, a biologist with the Calaveras County-based Jumping Frog Research Institute.
Stack’s group intervened unsuccessfully in the homebuilders" lawsuit. Now, the nonprofit is working with Calaveras County ranchers to plan frog recovery efforts in their pastures—a voluntary collaboration that happens to be taking place outside the proposed critical habitat boundaries.
While such circumstances seem to support Pombo’s arguments, Stack disagrees. "It’s not a question of [either] critical habitat or voluntary cooperation," he says. "We need both."