Blauert: Threatened frogs could affect tourism

August 6, 2013 

— The recent public comment period for Yosemite's Merced River Plan brought forth a storm of comment and concern.

Although we probably won't begin to know what the final plan will look like until the end of the year, a far larger land management change that could drastically alter recreation and economic activity on public lands in our mountains may be at our doorstep.

The "worst case scenario" suggested by opponents of these proposed regulations includes elimination or strict limitation of public access to 2 million acres of land within the Sierra Nevada.

Hopefully the situation is not that dire; however, past experience indicates that quickly-implemented and far-reaching changes in policy and management can have drastic effects. Just last year the National Park Service decided to not issue any further permits for horse and mule packers within the wilderness areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, in effect putting several small businesses out of business. They were saved only by a bipartisan effort in Congress that led to the passage of a bill to make sure the permits would be issued.

Here's the short version of the current issue as well as I understand it: On April 25, two proposed rules designed to protect Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs, mountain yellow-legged frogs, and Yosemite toads were published in the Federal Register. If it's been a long time since you took government in high school, this is the publication where proposed regulations, finalized regulations, and changed regulations are published by federal agencies.

Every day, this behemoth document averages over 300 pages. There are so many things proposed that there is no way for the average citizen to be aware of all of them.

The first rule proposes to designate these three species as endangered and the second to establish critical habitat areas in which protective measures will be carried out. No specifics have been announced about exactly what limitations on current recreational and economic activities might be introduced and that's where a lot of the uncertainty lies.

The primary cause of frog and toad population decline seems to be the spread of the chytrid fungus — probably spread by introduction of non-native African clawed frogs.

Introduction of non-native trout to lakes within the habitat range of these threatened species may be the second most important factor. Recreational activities seem to have far less impact on the success of frog and toad populations, yet seem to be under consideration for limitation according to the information in the Federal Register.

A USFWS press release dated July 18 does clarify that "recreation use is not considered to be a significant threat to any of these species," and hopefully that will be reflected in the implementation.

The proposed rules went largely unnoticed until late May when they were discovered and publicized by Defend Rural America. Meetings have been held in Placer, El Dorado, and Fresno Counties — three of the 14 counties that will be affected by the proposed rules. Since that time, several counties have requested additional hearings and the comment period has been extended through Nov. 18.

If this issue concerns you, I strongly encourage you to attend the public forum that Representative Tom McClintock is holding in Sonora on Aug. 6. It is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds (220 Southgate Drive).

Decisions made by the Fish and Wildlife Services are supposed to be based on science and no doubt if the species are found to be endangered, some kind of new rules will be put into effect.

Based on what I've learned, they certainly seem to be endangered and if this is correct, they will be protected. Where public involvement will be important is in the implementation.

My primary concern at this point is that the main causes of population decline — chytrid fungus and non-native trout — will not be the main factors addressed by the rules and that overreaching regulations that eliminate or heavily limit public access, recreation, and economic activity may be the result.

Although the rules published in the Federal Register state that there will not be major economic impacts, I am not convinced. The counties in which these lands are located are heavily dependent on tourism, recreation, agriculture, timber harvest, and mining.

Fortunately, there are provisions in the law that may be used to exclude areas from critical habitat designation and to temper the implementation of species protection to minimize economic impacts.

All species have their needs, and one of ours is economic. There has to be a compromise that is in the best interest of all and the best way to find it is for as many people as possible to be involved in the decision-making process.

Other concerns that have been raised by leaders throughout the 14 counties that will be effected include the broad swaths of land proposed for critical habitat designation when the frog and toad populations only live in narrow corridors along lakes and waterways, a lack of focus on limiting the chytrid fungus and its effects, and evidence used in the decision-making process that seems incomplete or speculative.

Looking around for similar species issues in the past, the best comparison I've been able to find is with the southern population of the mountain yellow-legged frog, listed as an endangered species in Southern California since 2002.

To my knowledge, this listing has only affected public access in two areas and trails have been rerouted as a result. The April 25 Federal Register mentions this, but also notes that the northern population, "requires different management."

The concern that rules to protect the northern population may be more restrictive is bolstered by the large swaths of land proposed for critical habitat designation. With so many more lakes and waterways in our part of the state, the proposed critical habitat is correspondingly larger.

Adam Blauert is a correspondent to the Sun-Star. He's an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking, and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com.

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