A proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to designate 1,105,400 acres in California as critical habitat for the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and Yosemite Toad has Inyo County Supervisors concerned.
Inyo County is just one of many areas encompassed by the proposed habitat, including Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Alpine, Mariposa, Madera, Tuolumne, Fresno and Mono counties.
In Inyo County, USFWS proposes designating roughly 9,085 acres of critical habitat for the Yosemite Toad, and roughly 47,430 acres for the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog. The two areas would share about 2,464 acres.
Of those designated acres, 93% for the Yosemite Toad encompass wilderness land, while 3% encompass County land. 80% of the land designated as critical habitat for the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog lies within wilderness boundaries, while 20% lies within County land.
“Staff is concerned that this could lead to further reduction in activities like grazing, trout stocking, and packing,” said Inyo County Planning Director Josh Hart. However, any restriction of activities following the designation would come from the Forest Service, not USFWS, said USFWS Media Contact Robert Moler. Creating a critical habitat designation for the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and Yosemite Toad “really does one thing,” he said; “It tells people that [these species] could live here.” USFWS would not actually manage the designated land, a common misconception, Moler said. “We’re not in the business of restricting access to public lands,” he said. “We’re in the business of protecting species.”
Nevertheless, as Inyo County Counsel Randy Keller put it, “Every decision in the future will be weighed against, does this contribute to the recovery of the frogs?”
According to the USFWS, threats to the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and Mountain Toad populations include trout stocking, dams and reservoir diversion, grazing, packstock use, roads, timber harvest, fire management activities, disease, climate change, and pollution.
Supervisor Rick Pucci noted the delicate position the Board finds itself in. “We’re put in this horrible spot, sounding like we don’t care about the environment,” he said. In actuality, he said, the County economy relies heavily on a variety of uses on its dwindling land. Losing some 20% of that County land, as well as wilderness that draws visitors to the area for recreation, could have a severe economic impact on the County. “I don’t think there’s any denying that the concept is good,” Pucci said, “but the collateral impacts are sometimes lost in the discussion.”
County Counsel Keller remarked that, with this type of designation, “It really does make a difference what kind of economic impact the designation has.” Because the area designated for critical habitat enjoys multiple uses by the County that could be suspend completely to protect the amphibian populations, the County has an opportunity to make a case regarding the possible economic impact of any change to the current land use.
Josh Hart informed Supervisors that the County has until the end of the month to submit comments to the USFWS, and that, should they wish, they may request a hearing by June 10. A hearing could give the County an opportunity to gather local packers and fishing guides, and others whose livelihoods depend on land that the USFWS might designate for the conservation of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and Mountain Toad, for testimony. The hearing could also give the County an opportunity to present projections of the economic impact to the region, should the Forest Service restrict uses. Added Keller, “A hearing is the trigger to make them slow down and pay attention to the evidence.”
Supervisor Arcularius cautioned that this would be an uphill battle. “Groups promoting a designation like this have unlimited budgets and resources,” she said, including large quantities of research data to support their claims. “The counties with limited resources are put in the position of countering that,” she said. Because of this discrepancy, she added, should Inyo County request a hearing, “We better be darn well prepared.”
County Supervisors elected to request an extension to the comment period, and, should USFWS deny that request, a hearing, preferably within the County. This decision is intended to “buy more time to get a socio-economic analysis together,” said Inyo County CAO Kevin Carunchio.