Federal officials with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife have said that Eastern Sierra residents will have more opportunities to comment on habitat and endangered/threatened species designations of two populations of the Mountain Yellow Legged Frog and Yosemite Toad.
USFW officials also say neither the department nor the designations themselves will have a direct effect on trout stocking or fishing. Any move to remove trout, kill trout or prohibit trout fishing in the proposed critical habitat areas would come from the U.S. Forest Service or California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agencies responsible for fish stocking.
Forest Service officials said this week that they have been promoting rehabilitation of the frogs by allowing fish populations in some backcountry lakes to die off since the late 1990s or early 2000s.
Robert Moler, a spokesperson for the USFWS said Tuesday that there have been several requests to have the comment period on critical habitat designations for the frogs and toad, endangered species designations for the frogs and a threatened species designation for the toad extended. However, there has been no word on whether that extension will be granted.
“There is another comment period coming up,” Moler said, explaining that officials will analyze the public comment received on the critical habitat and endangered/threatened species proposals before compiling an economic analysis.
Moler said the economic analysis should be completed in two to three months, and at that time residents will have another opportunity to comment on the habitat and species designation proposals and on the economic analysis.
“We will take in additional comments then move towards a final decision within 12 months of the proposal,” Moler said. That means that a “final decision” should be out within a year.
However, Moler said that the USFWS’s decision will not have any direct impact on trout stocking in local waters.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t stock pond,” Moler said. “Those agencies (that do trout stocking) may make decisions to stop. But they would engage us and we would issue what is called a Section 7 biological opinion,” essentially offering a third-party, non-binding view of the issue.
“We have no authority over the state agencies,” Moler said. “Critical habitat does not limit access at all. It becomes illegal for someone to take (the designated species). With critical habitat on federal lands, if there is a project, they would have to consult with the Service, and we’re not necessarily going to stop all projects.”
Local officials fear that the designations could open the door for the U.S. Forest Service to implement more angling restrictions.
Inyo County Planning Director Josh Hart said one of the issues with the proposed critical habitat designation and endangered/threatened species designations is that it is unclear exactly what those decisions will mean for Inyo County’s public lands.
“We don’t know what they’re going to do,” Hart said. “They’re going to designate, but the planning will come later. We do know that as part of the Forest Plan Update, it is going to be an issue” for local anglers, tourists and the area’s tourism-dependant economy.
The total area proposed for critical habitat designations is 1,831,820 acres. All proposed areas are between 5,500 and 12,000 feet in elevation.
Inyo County areas proposed for the critical habitat designation include Rock Creek Lake, waters near Mt. Tom, the Bishop Creek Drainage, including South Lake, Coyote Flat, Big Pine Creek Drainage and Onion Valley.
U.S. Forest Service Public Information Officer Deb Schweizer said that the USFS has had the frogs listed as “sensitive species” since 1998 and has ongoing “population reintroduction” efforts in effect on the Inyo National Forest. The Yosemite Toad, she said, is not considered a sensitive species by the INF.
Those “population reintroduction” efforts include the removal of trout from a number of local lakes, including Big Pine Lakes 6, 7 and 8, Treasure Lakes 5, 6 and 7, Upper Horton Lake and Gable Lakes.
“We look at places that are not self sustaining for fish and we tried to select places that aren’t popular recreation lakes,” Schweizer said. “They tend to be more remote lakes.”
Schweizer said the Forest Service has not killed off fish in those areas, but allows the trout population to die off on its own.
“We recognize the need to balance, and there are plenty of lakes that are still stocked,” Schweizer said, adding that less than 5 percent of the INF’s backcountry lakes have been selected for population reintroduction.
As for the toad, Schweizer said that the Forest Service has limited pack-stock grazing on its land during the toad’s breeding season to ensure that the toad populations remain healthy.