Twenty-three years ago, the listing of the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act was one of the factors that led to a sharply reduced Northwest timber harvest. Now, wildlife officials are proposing to list the Oregon spotted frog. If approved, this listing would not have nearly the far-reaching impact the spotted owl listing had. But officials in Klamath County are pushing back against a proposal they fear will lead to intrusive and economically-damaging regulations.
It probably doesn’t help that the frog at the center of this controversy has the word “spotted” in its name.
Recently, on JPR’s Jefferson Exchange, Klamath County Commissioner Tom Mallams cited the spotted owl listing as a cautionary tale.
Tom Mallams: “It’s decimated the entire state timber industry. Billions and billions of drivers lost in economic drivers and thousands and thousands of jobs lost, entire communities decimated.”
The decline of the Northwest timber economy can’t really be blamed solely on the spotted owl. Economic trends, including mechanization and dwindling old growth forests, had been reducing logging jobs well before the owl became a regional celebrity.
But as a symbol of government over-reach in the name of environmental protection, the spotted owl resonates deeply in resource-dependent communities such as Klamath County. And Commissioner Mallams says he and his colleagues are determined to resist what they see as a system that values critters above humans.
Tom Mallams: “I think the balance of this equation has been totally lost, whether you’re talking about the spotted owl, the spotted frog or the wolf or whatever it is. The balance needs to get swung back to the place where there’s some economic driving forces going on the help our communities survive.”
Mallams quotes a California judge who once described the US Department of the Interior as “rife with environmental zealots with an agenda.”
Noah Greenwald’s take on federal wildlife agencies is strikingly different. Greenwald is with the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based non-profit that has frequently sued those agencies for not using the Endangered Species Act aggressively enough. For Greenwald, the listing of the Oregon spotted frog is 20 years overdue.
Noah Greenwald: “It’s an aquatic species. It’s dependent on river flood plains, areas that pool up, kind of wetlands next to rivers. And as you can well imagine that’s a habitat type that’s been heavily degraded.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the spotted frog is gone from more than three-quarters of its historic habitat, which used to extend from northern California to British Columbia. Now it exists in fragmented populations, mostly in Oregon and Washington.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service when it declined to list the spotted frog after first proposing it in 1993. The current spotted frog proposal is part of a settlement in which the government has promised to complete vetting hundreds candidate species by 2018. On the Jefferson Exchange, Greenwald said the listings should be welcomed, not feared.
Noah Greenwald: “These species are part of the ecosystem, they’re part of the web of life, and their ecosystems provide us services, they provide us protection from flooding, they clean our water, they pollinate our plants and so as we lose species, these ecosystems lose their function and that will ultimately affect us all.”
Of the 54,000 acres being considered for designation as critical habitat for the spotted frog, more than half are in Klamath County.
Jennifer O’Reilly is a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Bend. She says private landowners needn’t worry if their property is included in the areas designated as critical frog habitat.
Jennifer O’Reilly: “One of the things we tell people specifically with critical habitat is that it’s not a refuge or a preserve. It does not authorize the federal government or public access to private land.”
One way private landowners could be impacted would be if the use of their land includes federal contracts or permits. The Klamath commissioners worry grazing or logging on federal land could be restricted. But O’Reilly says grazing or logging could actually be used to restore frog habitat by removing invasive vegetation. She says her agency is eager to work with landowners to develop ways to help save the Oregon spotted frog.