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Mississippi gopher frog
The Republic, June 11, 2012

US Fish & Wildlife to Nearly Triple Critical Habitat for Endangered Mississippi Leopard Frog
By Janet McConnaughey

NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designating nearly 6,500 acres in Mississippi and Louisiana as critical habitat for the endangered Mississippi gopher frog — the only endangered or threatened frog in the Southeast.

An estimated 100 to 200 live in the wild in Mississippi, and 892 in zoos, said the Memphis Zoo's Steve Reichling, who keeps the gopher frog stud book, a species registry to ensure good breeding match-ups.

Most of the land described in a notice to be published in Tuesday's Federal Register is in Mississippi but it also includes the frog's last known Louisiana breeding ground, in St. Tammany Parish, where five of the temporary ponds it needs remain in hopping distance of each other.

Edward Poitevent, whose family owns most of the Louisiana land, has been fighting the designation. He says he cannot comment until he reads the full notice.

Critical habitat designation requires Fish and Wildlife Service consultation for federal permits.

The land includes about 1,600 acres in St. Tammany Parish, La., with the rest in Mississippi's Jackson, Harrison, Forrest and Perry counties. The Mississippi land includes about 3,500 acres of federal land, 264 acres owned by the state and the rest private.

The private landowners in Mississippi are working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Connie Light Dickard, an agency spokeswoman.

The frogs, also known as dusky gopher frogs, have bodies about three inches long, their dark backs covered with darker spots and warts that secrete a bitter, milky fluid. When picked up, they cover their eyes with their forefeet, possibly to protect their faces until predators taste the liquid and drop them.

They live in stump holes and burrows dug by other animals, laying their eggs in ponds so shallow they dry up for several months of the year and are therefore free of fish that would eat frog eggs. They're part of a whole ecology that depends on regular fires to burn away brush and smaller trees from the longleaf pine forests where they live.

It's very important that the government included areas where the frog isn't currently found, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The frog has only been consistently breeding in one pond. That leaves it very vulnerable to extinction," he said. "It needs to be recovered to more areas to have a better chance of survival."

The timber industry all but eradicated the longleaf pine forests that once covered 90 million square miles of the South. People tend to fill in or deepen the ephemeral ponds in those that are left and resist the idea of regular managed fires.

Most of the wild frogs are in the oldest and largest known colony, known as Glen's Pond in Harrison County, with smaller groups at three sites in Harrison and Jackson counties.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed nearly 2,000 acres in those counties and two others in Mississippi as critical habitat. Conservation groups and scientists protested that wasn't nearly enough. The agency is now proposing more than 1,600 acres in Louisiana and nearly 5,400 in Mississippi's Jackson, Harrison, Forrest and Perry counties.

Poitevent, an attorney whose specialties include natural resources law, has said he's worried about lost potential development.

Dickard said most concerns can be worked out. "When there needs to be dredging on the river and there's a nesting bird in that area that's threatened or endangered, we can work ... around the nesting season. There are so many ways we can let the projects go forward and still conserve the species."

Greenwald said landowners can be compensated for conservation work. "I hope he sees this as an opportunity to help conserve a species and help save something for future generations."

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton