Environmentalists were handed another tool in their fight against the Devil's Slide bypass Monday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the red-legged frog as "threatened," offering it protection under the Endangered Species Act.
A colony of the frogs has established itself in ponds on the Shamrock Ranch property at the south end of Pacifica. The proposed 4.5-mile Martini Creek Bypass would run right through those ponds.
Meanwhile, agricultural interests decried the action, calling the designation "another nail in the coffin of California farmers' property rights . . ."
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that they are aware of the colony at Shamrock Ranch and have been working with the California Department of Transportation to minimize impact by the road upon the frogs. However, spokeswoman Pat Foulk said the designation as threatened does not mean the bypass cannot be built in its current alignment. The official protection, she said, gives the Fish and Wildlife Service additional power to ensure that the animal is not harmed.
"Certainly we have been working with CalTrans," Foulk said. "Now the talk can get more serious."
Beyond its potential impact on the Devil's Slide debate, the listing will protect a colony of the frogs in Pescadero Marsh that is believed to be the largest colony of red-legged frogs in the state, Foulk said.
As a "threatened" species, the frog receives "basically the same level of protection" as species that are "endangered," Foulk said. The law gives the government additional power to force changes in development to keep it from impacting listed species' habitats. Foulk said that if a project is allowed that harms the habitat of a listed species, the federal government can be required to create new habitat elsewhere.
A similar method is being used by CalTrans to replace wetlands that will be destroyed by widening Highway 92. CalTrans has won approval to replace the wetlands off-site on a former dump site in Half Moon Bay that is to be cleaned up.
Bypass opponents had long expected the frog to be listed and welcomed Monday's announcement.
"Something like a frog is an indicator species to the ecosystem," said Peter Drekmeier, who has photographed red-legged frogs at Shamrock Ranch.
"The red-legged frog once covered so much of California," he added. "Now it's just a few coastal areas. It really makes people take the frog more seriously."
According to Foulk, the frog once populated much of the state, but now is only found in 240 streams and drainage ditches in 22 counties.
Not everyone welcomed the news, however. The California Farm Bureau issued a statement saying the designation is "symptomatic of an act gone wrong. Federal protection for the frogs will mean greater problems for farmers and ranchers in their ability to graze livestock, clear brush, clean drainage ditches or even to cultivate their land."
The red-legged frog is the first species to be listed since a moratorium on new listings was enacted by Congress 13 months ago. President Clinton lifted the moratorium on April 29, clearing the way for the frog, which was originally proposed to be listed as endangered in 1992. The proposed designation was later changed to threatened based on public testimony and the number of frog populations documented.
The frog is between two and five inches long and weighs three to nine ounces. Its skin is olive green with a reddish hue on the lower belly and legs.
In the late 19th Century, Foulk said, huge populations of the frogs were killed and eaten as a delicacy. The frog was immortalized for its jumping prowess in Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."