Environmentalists sue to help Sierra amphibians

The Associated Press
Saturday June 02, 2001

Two rare amphibian species in the Sierra Nevada are in danger of extinction and likely would be protected under the Endangered Species Act except for a federal moratorium on new listings, a government biologist acknowledged Friday. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imposed the moratorium in November, citing a backlog of lawsuits by environmentalists, and announced it would act only in response to court orders. 

So environmentalists have taken that route again, suing to force protection of the Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog and the Yosemite toad. 

“I think unless things dramatically change in the near future they deserve to be listed,” said Jason Davis, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento who has studied the demise of the frogs and toads. 

“The species probably won’t go extinct in the next three to four years, but they could shortly thereafter if something isn’t done,” he told The Associated Press by telephone. 

Conservationists say the decline of the frog and toad from Yosemite National Park north to Lake Tahoe reflects the degradation of aquatic ecosystems throughout the West. 

“We’re on the brink of losing what were once the two most common amphibians in the high Sierra,” said Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity in Berkeley, Calif. 

“More than half of the native amphibians in Sierra Nevada watersheds are in serious decline and in need of formal protection,” said David Bayles, conservation director for the Pacific Rivers Council in Eugene, Ore. 

Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund filed the suit on behalf of the two groups in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Thursday. 

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s delay in protecting the frog and toad ... is illegal and potentially dangerous for these declining species,” said Laura Hoehn, the lead attorney for Earthjustice. 

Pesticides, air pollution, livestock grazing near streams and introduction of non-native fish are among the factors contributing to the decline of both species, the lawsuit said. 

The groups petitioned the agency for the listings 15 months ago and the agency concluded in October that the listings might be warranted. 

But the agency missed legally mandated deadlines in March to issue final decisions on the frog and the toad, as it has in the case of dozens of other listing petitions in recent years, citing a shortage of money and backlog of higher priority species. 

“We probably should have had a proposed rule in this case,” Davis said. 

“Currently, the moratorium mandated by the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service says we need to halt all listing actions except those being driven by a court order,” he said. “I’ve been basically told to box up all my stuff and wait for further word.” 

The agency’s former director, Jamie Clark, told regional directors Nov. 17 to halt work on any listing actions not under court order or settlement agreement, saying “it will not be practical for the service to respond to any new petitions this fiscal year,” ending Sept. 30. 

The Bush administration has proposed increasing Fish and Wildlife’s budget for endangered species by $2 million to $8.5 million, but that remains well short of the $120 million the agency says it needs to clear out a backlog of listings. 

The new lawsuit says the Yosemite toad has disappeared from 47 percent of its historic habitat in the national park and surrounding national forests. The Sierra Nevada population of mountain yellow-legged frog has suffered similar declines. 

The Yosemite toad is found along lake shores and ponds at high elevation. The female has a colored mosaic of dark blotches on an olive-tan background, and adult males mature to a bright lemon color. 

Davis said the stocking of non-native trout appears to be the biggest cause of the loss of frogs because the rainbows and browns feast on the tadpoles. 

“They wipe out the frogs and force them into more marginal habitat,” he said. 

On the Net: 

Center for Biological Diversity: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: http://www.fws.gov 

Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund: http://www.earthjustice.org