Increased habitat proposed for red-legged frog 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to increase protected habitat for the California red-legged frog by about 300 percent in an effort to rehabilitate the threatened species.

The new proposal stems from a scientific review that followed the May 2007 resignation of Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Interior Julie MacDonald, who is believed to have "inappropriately influenced" a 2006 rule by former Department of Interior personnel regarding the red-legged frog, according to Al Donner, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2006, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report alleging that MacDonald and other "high-ranking political appointees within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Department of the Interior (had) systematically distorted, manipulated, and misused the scientific process prescribed by the Endangered Species Act."

According to the non-profit scientific research group, MacDonald allegedly changed and overrode the findings of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's own biologists.

After MacDonald's resignation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dale Hall identified eight decisions that MacDonald had "played a role in that was not supportive of the science," Donner said.

Hall asked the agency's biologists to review the decisions, including one that designated critical red-legged frog habitat.

The new proposal, which drastically increases designated critical habitat for the frog, is a result of that scientific review, Donner said.

The new plan proposes establishing 1,804,865 acres of protected habitat in 49 units in 28 counties in California, including seven counties that did not previously have critical habitat designations. Those counties include Calaveras, Kings, Mendocino, Placer, Riverside, Sonoma and Stanislaus.

The remaining counties with proposed critical habitat include Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Kern, Los Angeles, Marin, Merced, Monterey, Napa, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, Ventura and Yuba.

Among the differences from the 2006 rule, the new plan extends the likely dispersal range for the frog and focuses on protecting watersheds that create appropriate habitat for the species. It also seeks to protect existing healthy populations of the frog and provide connectivity between populations to prevent them from becoming genetically isolated.

The proposal generally avoids areas near developments, fragmented areas and heavily farmed areas, Donner said.

A large portion of the proposed designated habitat is ranch land, where the frogs have established themselves in stock ponds. The new proposal includes a provision that would hold ranchers harmless if a frog is killed during normal maintenance of stock ponds, so long as the rancher generally uses frog-friendly practices, Donner said.

A 60-day comment period on the new proposal opened today. 

Donner said that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to have the final plan in place by August 2009.

The frog species was memorialized in Mark Twain's 1865 short story

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The story was also published as "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog."

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