Al Donner, 916-414-6566, firstname.lastname@example.org or cell 916-712-2004
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) today opened a 60-day comment period on a new plan to designate 1.8 million acres as critical habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii), an area that is 300 per cent larger than a 2006 designation for the species.
The new proposal is the result of a rigorous scientific review conducted by Region 8 (California-Nevada) biologists, at the direction of Service Director Dale Hall. In July 2007 Hall told the Region?s biologists to independently review a 2006 critical habitat rule and propose changes if, in their scientific judgment, changes were needed to assure the scientific integrity of the plan. Hall took that step after concluding that there may have inappropriate influence on the 2006 rule by former Department of Interior personnel.
The new proposal was developed "without using the previous final designation as a base from which to make changes due to the involvement of Department of Interior personnel which may have inappropriately influenced the extent and locations of critical habitat (FR p. 53500)." The new plan is based on improved criteria, beginning with the 2002 Recovery Plan for the species.
"The goal of the Service is to help recover this species, which is a California icon that Mark Twain first made famous in the days when early Californians hunted the frogs as a food delicacy," according to Mike Fris, Acting Assistant Regional Director, Region 8. "This proposal uses the best scientific information available to identify the habitat that is key to the recovery of the species. We will finalize this rule after we carefully consider any comments provided to us by the public."
Among differences from the 2006 rule, the new plan extends the likely dispersal range for the frog from 0.7 miles, the standard used in 2006, to one mile. It also focuses on watersheds and adjusts units based on watershed boundaries. It seeks to protect healthy populations and those that are unique, and provides for connectivity between populations.
The proposal generally avoids areas on the fringes of developed lands, fragmented areas and intensely farmed areas. It also broadens the presence criteria to include areas where the species was not confirmed until after the 1996 listing, but is likely to have been present in 1996. These include Mendocino County and new confirmed findings in the Sierra Nevada.
The new plan proposes 1,804,865 acres of critical habitat, in 49 units in 28 California counties. Habitat has been proposed in the following counties that did not have any designated in the 2006 rule: Calaveras, Kings, Mendocino, Placer, Riverside Sonoma and Stanislaus.
Counties with proposed habitat that also were in the 2006 rule are: Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Kern, Los Angeles, Marin, Merced, Monterey, Napa, Nevada, San Benito, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Solano, Ventura and Yuba.
The new plan proposes as critical habitat, but also recommends for exclusion, 105,013 acres in four counties (El Dorado, Contra Costa, Santa Cruz and Riverside) because those areas now are covered by existing habitat conservation plans (HCPs), which the Service believes provide better protection for the species.
However, the new proposal reverses the approach used in 2006 for two military bases, Camp San Luis Obispo and Vandenberg AFB. Those bases were excluded from the 2006 rule because they were developing Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans (INRMPs) to protect species. Because the INRMPs have not been completed, the new proposal does not recommend excluding the military bases.
The new critical habitat proposal also proposes to maintain the so-called 4(d) rule for compatible ranching operations, an exclusion pioneered in the 2006 rule. The exclusion gives ranchers, on whose land many of the frogs occur, protection from violating the ESA if they continue frog-friendly management.
On many California ranches, the frogs have moved into created stock watering ponds as their natural habitat has been eliminated. The Service seeks continued rancher cooperation to maintain frog habitat by offering them this protection.
A copy of the proposed rule, including maps and specific areas where the Service is seeking information, is available at http://www.fws.gov/sacramento or at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/pdf/E8-20473.pdf
Comments may be submitted through Nov. 17, 2008. Requests for public hearings must be submitted in writing by Oct. 31, 2008. Comments must be submitted either through the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov , and following instructions there; or by mail or hand delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R8-2008-0089; Division of Policy and directives management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.