After months of examining public input, federal officials have designated the mountain yellow-legged frog and northern distinct population of the mountain yellow-legged frog as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, and the Yosemite toad as a threatened species.
Critical habitat for the three amphibians, proposed on more than 1.8 million acres of Sierra lands, will not be considered for approval until early next year.
The final ruling on the species’ designations is available for public inspection in the Federal Register at www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection . The rule is expected to officially publish to the Federal Register next week, on April 29, and become effective 60 days later on June 30.
“This final rule is the result of exhaustive research, public comment and scientific peer review,” said Jennifer Norris, field supervisor for the Service’s Sacramento Field Office. “While other moderate and minor level threats including historic logging, mining, grazing pressures and recreational use were evaluated, they were not considered significant factors in our determination.”
Being added to the federal list of threatened and endangered species gives the amphibians protection “from human-caused impacts that could jeopardize their continued existence while at the same time providing a means by which they can be eventually recovered and removed from the list,” a press release from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states.
The USFWS announced its proposal to list the frogs and toad as endangered or threatened on April 25, 2013, at which time it also announced the proposal to designate 1,831,820 acres of critical habitat for the amphibians.
The agency then prepared a draft economic analysis for that critical habitat proposal and released it for public comment on Jan. 9. The USFWS also held two public meetings, two field hearings and participated in three Congressional public forums.
A final decision on the critical habitat proposal is expected to be made early next year, but the proposals were met with opposition in the Eastern Sierra, where residents said there is a fear that the designations will close off backcountry access (or at least appear to) and negatively impact the local, tourist-based economy.
Some of those fears were validated during the public comment process when it was brought to light that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had been removing trout from backcountry lakes for several years in an effort to protect the frogs and prevent an endangered species or critical habitat listing.
With fishing season kicking off today, anglers seeking solitude in the remote reaches of the Sierra Nevada are being advised that several lakes that were once thriving fisheries have been cleared of all trout to protect the frogs, which are eaten by the fish in their tadpole form.
DFW Environmental Scientist and Fisheries Biologist James Erdman said that state officials began trying to protect the frogs by limiting stocking and removing trout from habitat lakes throughout the Sierra in 1999. Over the past 15 years, trout have been completely removed from certain backcountry lakes west of Independence, Big Pine, Bishop and more.
Erdman said the goal of the fish removal program was to keep the frogs’ numbers strong enough to avoid an endangered species listing.
He said he believes the removal of the fish has had very little impact on anglers, but has resulted in healthy, thriving frog populations in most cases. However, a lawsuit prompted the USFWS to begin efforts to further protect a dozen different species, including the frogs and toads.
As of January, public officials continued planned to continue eradications, despite widespread opposition from Inyo County residents. It was argued that for local pack train operations, marinas and other businesses reliant on tourism, more regulations for the backcountry, or even a perceived increase in regulations, could be detrimental.
According to USFWS Desert Area Assistant Field Supervisor Carl Benz, “The critical habitat proposals do not close or restrict access. It only has bearing on the activities authorized or funded by federal agencies. Normal activities can continue.”
Erdman said efforts to remove trout from backcountry lakes have been focused on “lesser used” waters, most of which had not been stocked since the 1980s or couldn’t sustain fish without stocking.
In the Independence area, the DFW has removed trout from Bench, Matlock and Slim lake but the higher-elevation waters continue to produce trout. “We have no plans to remove fish from any of those.”
Near the Bishop Creek Drainage west of Bishop, biologists have removed trout from Treasure Lakes 3, 4, 5 and 6. Erdman said Treasure 1 and 2 are both popular fishing lakes and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Treasure Lakes 8 and 9, he said, have never supported trout.
The DFW has removed all trout from Horton Lake 3, the highest elevation lake between Mt. Tom and Basin west of Bishop. Erdman said Lower Horton Lake, the most popular lake, continues to be a healthy fishery. A benefit to the fish removal program in the Treasure Lakes Loop, Erdman said, is that there are more trout to be stocked in South Lake, one of the Bishop Drainage’s most popular fisheries.
Out of the Pine Creek drainage northwest of Bishop, Erdman said Gable Lakes 1, 2 and 3 are entirely fish-free, making the area a “frog drainage” rather than a fishing destination.
In the Thousand Islands Lakes area south of Yosemite, DFW officials removed trout from Emerald and Badger lakes.
“All of these lakes had management plans written and public outreach done around 2005-06. All the work on the frogs has gone through public scrutiny,” Erdman said. “So far, we have seen uniform increases in the frog populations.”
The DFW’s Eastern Sierra fishing guide includes information about what lakes are stocked with trout, which lakes have self-sustaining trout populations and exactly what lakes have had fish removed. That guide can be found at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/regions/6/ .