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Endangered Frog Hops Toward Greater Habitat Protections

Government Proposes Critical Habitat for Chiricahua Leopard Frog

Washington, DC-March 14. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is proposing critical habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the Chiricahua leopard frog in tomorrow’s Federal Register. The action is in response to a May 2009 court order obtained by WildEarth Guardians. Altogether, 11,136 acres are proposed for critical habitat in Arizona and New Mexico.

“Critical habitat for the Chiricahua leopard frog would make a world of difference for this imperiled amphibian,” stated Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians. “Facing climate change, an onslaught of threats to its habitat, devastating chytrid fungus, and non-native predators, this frog needs all the help it can get.”

The Chiricahua leopard frog is found at fewer than 20 percent of its historic locations. It has been eliminated from its namesake, the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. The Service believes that the leopard frog “has probably made modest population gains in Arizona” but is declining in New Mexico.

In tomorrow’s finding, the Service is proposing 40 units as critical habitat for the species. They total 11,136 acres, 6,571 of which is federal (59 percent); 426 state (4 percent); and 4,139 private (37 percent). All but 2 of the 40 sites are currently occupied by leopard frogs. Guardians advocates designation of all occupied sites as critical habitat, as well as unoccupied sites that still contain suitable habitat. Without critical habitat status, areas from which listed species have been eliminated generally do not receive significant protections under the ESA. Because the Chiricahua leopard frog is missing from the majority (more than 80 percent) of its range, protection of unoccupied sites is crucial for recovery.

Threats to the leopard frog and its habitat include mining, livestock grazing, water diversion, groundwater pumping, development, and altered fire regimes. A specific impending danger is the Rosemont Copper Mine, proposed in the Santa Rita Mountains. The proposed mine site includes areas occupied by Chiricahua leopard frogs; however, the Service’s proposal notably omits designating critical habitat at the mine site. Three critical habitat units are just a few miles south of the Rosemont proposed mine location.

Additional grave threats are chytrid fungus and predation by non-native animals. Both of these perils are exacerbated by destructive land uses and resulting habitat degradation. Chytrid fungus is contributing to declines in amphibians worldwide and has caused major die-offs in the Chiricahua leopard frog. Non-native predators the Chiricahua leopard frog faces include bullfrogs, crayfish, fish, and salamanders. For instance, sites where the leopard frog has been eliminated are 2.6 times more likely to have introduced crayfish than control sites. Also, despite prohibitions, the Service has documented continued releases by anglers of non-native salamanders (used as bait) infected with chytrid into the leopard frog’s habitat.

The U.S. Forest Service also contributes to ongoing threats to the frog. For example, on the Coronado National Forest, rainbow trout were stocked back into Pena Blanca Lake. Writes the Service: “Chiricahua leopard frogs and tadpoles were found in Peña Blanca Lake in 2009 and 2010, after the lake had been drained and then refilled, which eliminated the nonnative predators.  However, early in 2010, rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) were restocked back into the lake, and plans are underway to reestablish a variety of warm water fishes, as well.”

Other threats to the leopard frog include climate change and drought. The Service had previously regarded both as threats to this species. The Service now appears, through tomorrow’s finding, to dismiss these threats. However, in its site-specific analysis of conditions at the 40 units proposed for critical habitat, the agency often mentions problems caused drought, which is exacerbated in the southwest by climate change.

The proposal reviews the overall status of the Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis), given a recent taxonomic change. Guardians petitioned the Ramsey Canyon leopard frog (Lithobates subaquavocalis) for ESA listing in 2007, and scientists subsequently reclassified the species under the Chiricahua leopard frog. In a 2009 decision on Guardians’ petition, the Service stated that the Ramsey Canyon leopard frog was therefore listed under the ESA. In tomorrow’s decision, the agency reviews the status of the full species, given that it now includes the Ramsey Canyon leopard frog. 4 of the 40 critical habitat units are in areas occupied by frogs formerly known as Ramsey Canyon leopard frogs.

A final critical habitat determination for the Chiricahua leopard frog is due by March 2012, under court order.


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