Inyo County remains between a rock and a hard place when it comes to a proposed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) critical habitat designation for the Sierra Nevada Yellow-Legged Frog, the Northern District population segment of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog, and the Yosemite Toad. While the Inyo County Board of Supervisors expressed support for mitigation efforts to preserve the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog population in Inyo County and the Sierra Nevada range, their concern is that any designation of critical habitat would cut off precious wilderness and private lands for County use.
The critical habitat designation, proposed in spring of this year, would demarcate 1,105,400 acres in California for preservation of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog. Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs are listed as endangered; the Sierra Nevada Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog and Northern District population of the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog are currently listed as threatened, although USFWS intends to list them as endangered. In Inyo County, USFWS proposes designating 47,430 acres for the Sierra Nevada and Northern District Yellow-Legged Frog, as well as 9,085 acres for the Yosemite Toad, also listed as a species of concern by the USFWS, and a candidate for protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
The Board met on Tuesday to discuss a prepared correspondence intended, as Inyo County Planning Director Josh Hart described it, “to express dismay about the proposal.” The County’s dismay stemmed from the potential loss of land for recreation and agriculture, including fishing, boating, hiking, packing, off-road vehicle use, and grazing, should the critical habitat designation pave the way for a restriction on these historical uses.
County economists Gruen + Gruen Associates prepared a preliminary assessment enclosed with County correspondence with the USFWS, noting concerns about the designation’s impact to recreational activities at Rock Creek, Bishop Creek, Big Pine Creek, and Coyote Flat, in particular. According to the G + G report, leisure and hospitality, or the tourist-related services offered within Inyo County, account for 24.1% of Inyo County employment, and 15.7% of earnings in 2011. G + G argued that losing a large portion of land for the recreation that drives the tourism industry in Inyo would “have the potential for significantly reducing the scale and viability of the County’s critical base industry.”
The G + G report also noted that the USFWS report in the Federal Register (Vol. 78, No. 80) on April 25 did not make clear whether the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog has the potential to survive larger threats, such as the effects of climate change and disease epidemics, should fishing, grazing, and other outdoor activities be prohibited as a result of the designation.
“Maybe we can change the habitat,” said Supervisor Rick Pucci; “focus the maps.” The current maps include all areas of potential impact. Pucci argued that USFWS “has put no evidence out there that you need all of this habitat to preserve these frogs.”
Supervisor Jeff Griffiths suggested appealing to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) “to see if they have any interest as a landowner in avoiding the critical habitat on their land,” he said. A restriction by USFWS could limit USFS use of wilderness land, as well.
Supervisor Linda Arcularius noted that the current Inyo National Forest (INF) Plan Revision process could also be a boon to the County. The INF Plan Revision is an ongoing effort by the Forest Service to update the Inyo Forest Service Plan, providing revised management direction for the two million acres of the Inyo National Forest. Part of the Forest Plan Revision is a synthesis of existing scientific data to determine how management may need to change on Inyo National Forest lands.
“The USFWS has a responsibility to show us their data,” said Supervisor Arcularius. “Luckily, we do have [our own] data synthesis going on.” This data might provide evidence for areas where Yellow-Legged Frogs are found in “local abundance,” said Supervisor Griffiths. The data might also clarify which recreational impacts are most harmful to Yellow-Legged Frog populations.
In that sense, the Forest Plan Revision could offer the key to avoiding a critical habitat designation, if INF data suggested not only that local populations are thriving, but also that the USFS would be capable of appropriately managing the land to protect these populations. However, should USFWS maintain the necessity of a critical habitat designation, the USFWS decision “trumps everything,” said Inyo County Counsel Randy Keller. “If the prevailing science says we have to remove fish to save frogs, Forest Service hands are largely tied.”
Supervisors approved the correspondence to USFWS. The County will continue to move forward on evaluating the economic and cultural impacts of the proposal, as well as “remaining vigilant” for promised opportunities for public hearings and meetings between USFWS and the involved counties, said Josh Hart. “This is going to be a continuing saga,” concluded Supervisor Arcularius.