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Mississippi gopher frog
The Republic, September 27, 2011

Latest federal plan could triple hopping room for endangered frog found only in Mississippi
By Janet McConnaughey, The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — An endangered frog that lives only in Mississippi would have a lot more room to hop around under the latest land conservation proposal from the federal government.

The proposal made public Tuesday more than triples the area proposed as critical habitat for the Mississippi gopher frog, mostly in Mississippi but also including its last known Louisiana breeding ground.

The gopher frog is the only frog in the Southeastern United States listed as endangered or threatened. The frogs 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, keeping them free of fish that would eat frog eggs.

The frogs, which once also lived in Alabama, are part of a whole ecology that needs regular fires to burn away brush and smaller trees from the longleaf pine forests where they live.

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.

Now only about 100 gopher frogs are believed to live in the wild. Zoos are raising about 1,500, thanks to a wildly successful breeding program last summer at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, said Steve Reichling, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Memphis Zoo.

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.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed nearly 2,000 acres in those counties and two others in Mississippi as critical habitat, which would tighten rules for work needing federal permits. 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.

The decision gives the frog "a shot at survival," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center. "There's only one viable population of these gopher frogs left in the world. Without habitat protection and restoration, the Mississippi gopher frog will be lost forever."

Scientists don't really have enough information to analyze whether any of the smaller groups of frogs is big enough to be self-sustaining, said Linda LaClair, the Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery coordinator for the frog. Numbers can be only estimated from egg masses found in ponds, because underground nose counts aren't possible.

Glen's Pond is the only one where eggs are regularly found, Greenwald said.

The Louisiana land, near the St. Tammany Parish town of Hickory, is private industrial timberland that includes five ephemeral ponds close enough for frogs to move between them, the proposal says.

The ponds are ideal, LaClair said. Forests can be managed and restored but it's very difficult to create temporary ponds, she said. "And creating ponds where there's a group of them together is really impossible."

About 4,000 acres of the Mississippi land is public.

LaClair said the private land in Mississippi includes a Jackson County tract where biologists have been bringing frogs for years. The owners work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure it's managed properly. "They're very excited about it," LaClair said.

The captive frogs are at five zoos, but Reichling, whose zoo developed the breeding technique used in Omaha, said more are needed. "We want to spread our eggs out in many, many baskets."

He said genetic profiles showed that the frogs in Omaha "pretty much captured all the genetic diversity ... that exists in the world. We got most of those pairs to breed" and hatched about 1,200 frogs.

"Now we're trying to get these all distributed out," he said. "Who knows, maybe we'll have 20 zoos participating and holding nice-sized groups. Then we've got the foundation for a long-term captive effort."

"That's good news," Greenwald said. "Now if we can just get some habitat for them to live in and reproduce on their own. That would be quite a step forward."

LaClair said "The ball's back in our court to decide if we have a site where we can put them and when we can put them there."

©2011 The Republic, a division of Home News Enterprises.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton