NEW ORLEANS— A federal appeals court today upheld protections for 6,477 acres of critical habitat in Mississippi and Louisiana for endangered dusky gopher frogs, of which likely fewer than 100 remain on Earth. Today’s ruling rejected arguments made by private landowners and the Weyerhaeuser Company, which holds a timber lease on the frog habitat in St. Tammany Parish, La.
“This important ruling is good news for these endangered frogs that desperately need room to recover,” said Collette Adkins, a Center attorney who works to conserve amphibians and reptiles. “For the frogs to have a real shot at survival and recovery, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to reintroduce them into additional ponds within their former range. If the owners of the St. Tammany Parish lands were willing to work cooperatively with the Service, they could take reasonable steps to help save the frog while still keeping their lands in business.”
The appellate court affirmed a 2014 decision from the New Orleans district court that upheld the 2012 rule establishing the habitat protections, including 1,600 privately owned acres of unoccupied frog habitat in Louisiana. The appellate court held that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reasonably concluded that the St. Tammany Parish land is essential for recovery of the frogs, which are now confined to just three sites in southern Mississippi — with only one site regularly showing frog reproduction.
Although the frogs no longer live on the St. Tammany Parish lands, the court agreed with the Service that those lands are essential because they contain five ephemeral ponds, each within hopping distance of the next. Dusky gopher frogs lay their eggs only in such temporary ponds — which are free of fish that would devour their eggs — and the St. Tammany Parish land was the frogs’ last known Louisiana breeding ground. The court also rejected the landowners’ argument that federal government regulation of the private lands was an unconstitutional abuse of power.
“This is a great victory for the dusky gopher frog, ensuring that there will be sufficient critical habitat to allow these frogs recover,” said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “I hope the owners of the St. Tammany lands will come to realize the value of recovering these little animals and their wetland home, and work with the Service to get the frogs back to the small part of those lands that’s needed to support them.”
The Center and Gulf Restoration Network participated as parties in the litigation that led to today’s ruling because the frog’s critical habitat protections resulted from their original advocacy and legal work.
The dusky gopher frog (Rana sevosa) is a warty, dark-colored frog with ridges on the sides of its back. When picked up, these frogs cover their eyes with their forefeet, possibly to protect their faces until predators taste their bitter skin secretions and release them. Gopher frogs spend most of their lives underground in burrows created by gopher tortoises — hence their name.
Once prevalent throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, dusky gopher frogs are nearly extinct. More than 98 percent of long-leaf pine forests — upon which the frog and many other rare animals depend — have been destroyed. Fire suppression, drought, pesticides, urban sprawl, highway construction and the decline of gopher tortoises have made this frog so rare it now lives in only a few small Mississippi ponds.
In response to a Center lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the gopher frog as a federally endangered species in 2001. Lawsuit and advocacy by the Center also prompted the 2012 critical habitat designation at issue in today’s ruling. Additionally, in December 2012 the Center and Gulf Restoration Network filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Interior Department for failing to develop a recovery plan for the frogs, and in response, the agency released a final recovery plan last fall.
More than 170 acres of critical habitat for the endangered dusky gopher frog were protected from development under a land purchaseannounced last year by the Center for Biological Diversity, Mississippi Chapter of the Sierra Club, Gulf Restoration Network, the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain and Columbus Communities, the developer of a planned community called “Tradition” in Harrison County, Miss. This land, now owned by the Land Trust, has been shielded from development to help ensure the survival of this rare frog and its longleaf pine habitat.