LA Times: Habitats May Shrink by Leaps, Bounds

Officials want to reduce sanctuaries for frogs and other species by 150 million acres.
By Janet Wilson
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 4, 2005

A century and a half ago, California's red-legged frog graced the menus of gourmet restaurants in San Francisco and helped launch a young American writer named Mark Twain, who immortalized the leaping Gold Rush wonder in his first published short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Humans have not repaid the favor since, gobbling up not just the long-legged amphibian but nearly all of its wetland habitat for crops and homes, threatening it with extinction.

On Thursday, as part of a continued, far-reaching rollback of protected landscapes for scores of imperiled species around the country, federal officials proposed cutting 82% of the celebrated frog's critical habitat.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would eliminate federally protected critical habitat on 150 million acres of largely undeveloped public and private land. The Senate could act on the legislation by year's end.

But even without legislative action, the Bush administration is eliminating critical-habitat designations around the country. Administration officials say that habitat protections cost landowners billions and that voluntary plans work better for landowners and wildlife.

In numerous cases, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her top deputies, citing their own cost estimates, have agreed with builders and property owners that the financial burden of habit protections outweighed any benefit to species.

The frog is a case in point, they said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a study that showed nearly $500 million in costs to homebuilders for protecting the frog's habitat.

But conservationists say voluntary plans are unproven and should be used to supplement government regulations, not replace them. And some economists and biologists say senior Interior Department officials are deliberately ignoring the economic, scientific and social benefits of preserving habitat.

Many threatened plants and animals won't make it, biologists say, if their sanctuary continues to shrink as part of a rollback of habitat protections under the Endangered Species Act. Among the California species that environmentalists are most concerned about, if the rollback continues, are the peninsular bighorn sheep, Steller sea lions, desert tortoises and northern spotted owls.

The critical-habitat provision of the Endangered Species Act requires government scientists to identify items such as soil, vegetation, water quality and temperature that a vulnerable species needs, and then to map areas where those conditions still exist.

Biologists say society loses when habitat is destroyed. When streams are encased in concrete, besides dooming creatures such as the frog, the waterways become sluices that funnel pesticides, battery acid and household waste into the ocean.

"By preserving the environment for endangered species, you automatically preserve the clean air that you breathe and the clean water you drink," said Ileene Anderson, a botanist with the California Native Plant Society.

Michael Sherwood, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice, said the benefits for society can be substantial.

"You're saving an endangered species for one thing…. But there are also really tangible fiscal benefits too, in terms of homeowners having open space and natural land preserved in the neighborhood…. Homeowners will pay a premium, will pay extra to get land next to preserved open space. Things like that are not taken into account in the economic analysis, so it's skewed, it's inaccurate."

Patrick Duffy, managing partner of Hanley Wood Market Intelligence in Costa Mesa, the nation's largest new-home market research firm, said adjacent open space can bump up home prices from 5% to 15%. But the premium doesn't show up in the government's economic analysis, he added.

On the other side of the debate, Paul Campos, general counsel for the Homebuilders Assn. of Northern California, said having an endangered or threatened species next door can also add costs for homeowners. In some cases, protecting species has required special fencing or even bans on residents' owning cats and dogs.

Unfortunately for wild plants and animals, much of the best natural habitat also is prime land for housing, farming and energy production.

In the case of the frog, that includes large sections of fast-growing Contra Costa, Alameda and San Mateo counties that are suffering some of the most acute housing shortages not just in the state, but in the nation, Campos said.

After his organization sued, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to reduce the frog's critical habitat from 4.1 million acres to 737,912 acres stretching from Butte and Calaveras counties in the north to Riverside County in the south.

The proposal retains about 18% of the original designation, cutting it entirely in eight counties and adding small amounts in two others.

Similarly, in a case involving another imperiled amphibian in California, the arroyo toad, top Interior Department officials have denied 97% of the habitat identified by federal biologists as critical to the species' survival.

The officials said the cost of protecting it — an estimated $1.5 billion over the next 20 years — would unfairly burden California real estate developers and water districts.

Much of that habitat reduction occurred after prominent developers — including Newhall Land and Farming Co., Pardee Homes and Rancho Mission Viejo — protested proposed critical habitat on their land.

Interior Department officials excluded all critical habitat belonging to the three developers.

Some analysts say decisions to cut back on protected land too often ignore the economic benefits of critical habitat.

Those raising questions include an economist who was hired to prepare the estimates for the federal government. He said the methodology the administration is using inflates the costs of critical habitat and ignores fiscal benefits.

"When you balance a checkbook, you add deposits as well as withdrawals," said Jason Moody of Economics and Planning Systems Inc., a Berkeley firm hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to work on nearly a dozen economic analyses, including one for the arroyo toad.

Moody and UC Berkeley economist David Sunding both said they were told by government officials not to calculate financial benefits of critical habitat.

Rather, they were given language prepared by the White House's Office of Management and Budget to insert saying it was not feasible to "monetize" the benefits.

Julie MacDonald, a top deputy at Interior, wrote in an e-mail that the department was not opposed to including monetary benefits in economic analyses "where they can be calculated." But, she added, "We don't make up numbers where they don't exist."

In the case of another threatened species, the bull trout, which once flourished in the icy, clear rivers of the Pacific Northwest, an economist hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service calculated $200 million to $215 million worth of potential benefits from protecting trout habitat.

They included the revival of the sportfishing tourism industry and cleaner drinking water.

But any mention of the benefits was excised from the analysis, according to Fish and Wildlife e-mails obtained by The Times.

At the same time, $200 million to $300 million worth of estimated costs to ranchers and utility companies were cited to help justify reducing 90% of proposed critical habitat.

After environmental groups sued, a subsequent analysis found $615 million worth of costs along various rivers and lakes, but again no benefits were included in the government's accounting.

Last month some habitat was restored, but more than 75% was not.

Fish and Wildlife officials say they can't calculate how much habitat or wildlife nationwide has been affected by their decisions.

But government records show that in the last three years, new economic analyses have been prepared as part of critical-habitat decisions for 323 plant and animal species nearing extinction.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, Interior officials since 2001 have withheld critical-habitat designation on 43 million acres around the country identified by federal biologists as essential to species' survival.

Another study, by a coalition of environmental groups, found that 16.4 million acres of existing critical habitat had been voided since President Bush took office.

About 8 million acres have been protected in voluntary habitat conservation plans overseen by the federal government over the last decade.

In the case of the red-legged frog, Fish and Wildlife Service field staff in Sacramento said the habitat cuts were made largely after more detailed maps were drawn up that eliminated areas that already had been developed or would be otherwise unusable by the frogs.

Neither environmental groups nor homebuilders appeared satisfied with Thursday's announcement, with both sides saying they would sue again if necessary after a final designation, expected in March.

Kieran Suckling, program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, said the reductions were a giveaway to politically powerful homebuilders' groups at the expense of fragile species.

"The red-legged frog has such a storied past and has been so much a part of California lore and life, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, that the administration is throwing away not just a biology … but a part of our history."

Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said senior department officials had reviewed the frog proposal and would continue to work on the designation.

As for the criticism, he said, "The policy and approach used in the proposed rule were consistent with the Endangered Species Act…. The designation is a proposal, and those who do not believe that it is adequate have an opportunity to make their views known during the public comment period."

Robert Stack, executive director of the Jumping Frog Research Institute in Calaveras County, praised one aspect of the frog proposal: a voluntary plan in which ranchers would fence off stock ponds to prevent cattle from trampling frogs.

Still, Stack said the overall cuts in the frogs' protected habitat were troubling.

The administration's "fundamental goal is just to minimize critical habitat using whatever means they can," he said. "They're just grasping at straws to reduce the number of acres because they're fundamentally opposed to critical habitat."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Red-legged frog

The California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii) has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1996.

It is believed to be the subject of Mark Twain's 1865 story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Until the early 1900s, about 80,000 red-legged frogs were harvested annually for food in the Bay Area and Central Valley.

Since then, destruction of wetlands and other changes have eliminated the frogs from more than 70% of their historic habitat.

They are now found primarily in wetlands and streams in coastal drainages of Central California.

They grow to between 1.5 and 5 inches in length.

The belly and hind legs of adult frogs are often red or pink.

They feed primarily on insects, tree frogs and mice.

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Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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Los Angeles Times


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