Feds begin to take notice of Eastern Sierra worries about frogs, toads

A federal proposal to include some local and highly used fishing and recreation areas (such as Rock Creek Lake) as “critical habitat” for three rare local amphibians was met with considerable skepticism Tuesday when the Mono County Board of Supervisors found themselves deep in frog and toad biology, reproduction and disease.

For many months, the noise over the possible impacts of listing three high country local species of frogs and a toad has come from the west side of the Sierra crest, but in the past few weeks, the Eastern Sierra recreational and agricultural communities have begun to put pressure on the federal Fish and Wildlife service to include local concerns.

A two-hour discussion on the service’s plan to include areas like Rock Creek Lake, Twenty Lakes Basin (near Saddlebag Lake) and Convict Lake in protected, critical habitat areas under the Endangered Species Act raised the ire of just about every supervisor.

At the heart of the discussion—this was a workshop, not an action item—were at least three major issues, according to the board.

First, an agreement to request the Fish and Wildlife Service remove highly impacted areas like Convict Lake, Twenty Lakes Basin, and others from its proposed critical habitat maps.

Second, the decision to allow the current federal and state agency plans and projects already working to protect the Yosemite toad, the mountain yellow-legged frog, and the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog from extinction to continue to move forward, without another level of bureaucracy.

For example, as Supervisor Tim Fesko noted, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has been working for many years to set aside some lakes and areas to help protect the amphibians (sometimes under controversial conditions, such as killing and removing stocked fish that eat the amphibians’ eggs from the lakes).

“Are the agencies talking to each other?” Supervisor Fred Stump questioned, adding that it would make sense if all agencies cooperated on their efforts to protect the amphibians.

Third, a request to do a more rigorous scientific review of the reasons the three amphibians are declining so rapidly, in order to be sure that the negative effects of protecting the amphibians to Eastern Sierra economies are justified.

For example, board member Larry Johnston was concerned that the world-wide decline of amphibians noted by Dr. James Paulus, who attended the meeting as a consulting biologist, was possibly due more to a fungus than to grazing, recreational fish stocking or other impacts outlined by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Is there an argument that it is the chytrid fungus versus grazing?” Johnston asked.

“This (fungus) is a world-wide phenomenon,” said Paulus, adding that within a year of the fungus attacking amphibian eggs and larvae, it can wipe out an entire population and persist in the environment for 10 years more.

But he said that the science is also clear that trout stocking where the amphibians live is a threat to the amphibians and that some grazing practices do add more stress to amphibian populations already devastated by the fungus.

The issue has also become a flashpoint for Inyo County supervisors, who will hold a meeting on the subject on Sept. 23 at the Tri-County Fairgrounds.

Several Mono County supervisors are planning on attending, and a representative from the Fish and Wildlife Service will also attend.

The Mono County Board of Supervisors is also planning a meeting with a Fish and Wildlife Service representative soon, according to Jim Leddy, the county’s administrative officer.

The board also was updated on efforts to protect the Bi-State sage grouse, another species that the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed as a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but the board was mostly satisfied that the work being done to protect the grouse was, at this time, adequate.