SACRAMENTO — A federal judge ordered over 4 million acres to remain as critical habitat for the California red-legged frog Wednesday until a ruling can be made on a dispute between developers and conservationists.
The two parties have been fighting over rights to the land since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated it as a critical habitat in March 2001. The 4 million acres cover parts of 28 of the state’s 58 counties, from Tehama and Plumas counties in the north to the Mexican border.
Conservationists have long fought to preserve the area for the frog, which has already been listed as “threatened” and therefore covered under the Endangered Species Act. They’ve fought developers who want to build on the land.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon in Washington, D.C., approved a proposed settlement to eliminate the frog’s habitat protections in the 4 million acres. That order followed a lawsuit by a developers group that claimed the economic analysis that led to the original designation was flawed.
But Leon reinstated protections temporarily Wednesday after conservation groups complained they weren’t part of the negotiations for the previous settlement.
“All we really wanted was a fair shot to get our opinions heard by the court,” said Richard Stack of the Jumping Frog Research Institute.
Paul Campos, a lawyer for the Home Builders Association of Northern California, said the developers group, which includes his client, had expected the order.
Builders realized Leon had signed the settlement they had proposed before hearing responses from the opposition.
The order signed Wednesday allows the time for both sides to file responses before the judge makes a final ruling on the future of the land.
Despite the setback, his group remains confident that the court will eventually rule in their favor, Campos said.
Encouraged by the order, Peter Galvin of the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity said the conservationist group remains “guardedly optimistic.”