Group sues to protect Mark Twain's 'celebrated jumping frog'

A conservation group with offices in San Francisco sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court here today in a bid to reverse a decision that dramatically reduced the designated critical habitat for the California frog made famous by Mark Twain.

The lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity concerns the California red-legged frog, the amphibian in Twain's 1865 story about “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

The frog was listed as a threatened species by the wildlife service in 1996.

In a decision last year, the agency reduced the designated critical habitat for the frog from 4.1 million acres to approximately 450,000 acres.

The center's lawsuit claims the decision violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act because it was based on improper influence by former Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald rather than on scientific data.

The suit is one of several filed by the center and other groups in various courts today challenging habitat reductions for 13 endangered or threatened species in Oregon, California, New Mexico and North Carolina.

Al Donner, assistant field superintendent for the wildlife service's Sacramento office, said the agency has already begun a re-evaluation of the frog's habitat at the direction of service Director H. Dale Hall.

Donner said, “We're working on it” and said the agency hopes to have a revised habitat proposal by September.

Hall in July ordered a re-evaluation of seven FWS decisions, including the frog habitat determination, after an investigation of what Hall described as possible “inappropriate influence” by MacDonald, who resigned her Interior Department position in May.

Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the group filed the suit despite the re-evaluation “to ensure that the issue is addressed” and that the decision is based on the best scientific data available, as required by the law.

Erin Tobin, an Earthjustice lawyer representing the group, said, “We're headed back to court not only to protect Mark Twain's celebrated jumping frog, but also to protect the scientific integrity of the endangered species program.”

The frog's habitat once extended from the California coast as far north as Marin County through the Central Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It has lost 70 percent of that habitat as a result of agriculture, urbanization, mining, logging and grazing, according to the lawsuit.

Critical habitat is defined in the Endangered Species Act as the geographic area needed for the recovery of a threatened or endangered species.

The law prohibits federal agencies from taking any action that could destroy or adversely modify the designated habitat.

While the law doesn't affect most private property, it does cover federal lands such as national forests, projects on public or private land that get federal funds, and wetland areas that need a federal permit for development, Miller said.

Miller said the critical habitat designation is “the most stringent protection” provided by the Endangered Species Act after a species is classified as threatened or endangered.

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