Conservation activist Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has a message for the Tulare County Board of Supervisors: the world is round and the Southern Sierra population of yellow-legged frogs needs federal protection.
Listing Already a Lock
Miller’s message was in response to the supervisors considering a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to voice official opposition to including the county’s nearly extinct population of yellow-legged frogs on the list of animals protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The frog’s southern Sierra range, which includes Tulare County, was listed as endangered by the state in 2019 and is already protected by the California Endangered Species Act.
Penning such a letter is tantamount to the county’s leaders tilting at windmills on the taxpayer dime, Miller says, while thumbing their noses at established conservation science.
“It’s (the Southern Sierra population of foothill yellow-legged frog) kind of the epitome of an endangered species,” he said. “It’s almost certain to get listed.”
Fish and Wildlife’s move to list the local “distinct population segment” of yellow-legged frogs as endangered came in response to a petition by the CBD and a follow-up lawsuit. The frog (Rana boylii), which is named for its lemon-colored underside, is tiny, just 1.5 to 3 inches long, and lives in Sierra streams that flow year-round.
“It’s almost completely gone from Tulare County,” Miller said.
Emotions Won’t Drive Listing
Miller is completely unconcerned about Tulare County supes’ opposition to listing the frog. In fact, he says he sees it as a bit of comedy.
“I found this kind of amusing,” he said. “Listing on the Endangered Species Act list is supposed to be based on science.”
Miller scoffs at Tulare County’s supervisors opposing listing R. boylii as endangered at such a late stage in the process. CBD first petitioned for endangered status for the frogs in 2012, which the state granted in 2019.
Dozens of government agencies and NGOs worked to provide the data leading to the listing, providing clear science-based reasoning on why the frog species needs protection, according to Miller.
“If the Board of Supervisors wants to send a letter, more power to them,” he said. “They might as well put in a request that the (Fish and Wildlife) Service add in that the Earth is flat.”
Feeling Froggy? Then Jump!
The listing will have almost no impact on local land development, given the tiny population count.
“There’s just a few frogs left in Tulare County,” Miller said. “They’re mostly in the upper Kern River and the North Fork Kern River. This is a frog species that is extremely endangered.”
Tulare County could have had a much more productive role had they chosen to, Miller says.
“A lot of municipalities, governments and (irrigation) districts are submitting actual information,”he said. “They’re not just sending an emotional reaction letter, which is what it seems like the Tulare County Board of Supervisors is doing.”
Board Vice Chair Dennis Townsend, however, does see the Board’s opposition to the R. Boylii listing as productive for the residents he represents in District 5. That district — the county’s largest — contains the cities of Porterville, Ducor and Terra Bella, with the remainder taken up by the rugged areas including Inyo and Sequoia National Forests, the Sequoia National Monument, the Golden Trout Wilderness and other sparsely-populated wildlands.
Townsend’s concern is that too many species are being given protected status as the impulse to protect and strengthen the environment becomes a greater priority for an ever growing number of people in the general population, as well as in positions of authority.
“We’re informed whenever species are listed or are being considered for listing or upgrading a listing on the Endangered Species Act, and there’s been a whole spate of these over the past couple of years,” he said. “It seems like it’s been ramping up.”
Home on the Range
As the Center for Biological Diversity’s Miller points out, the R. boylii is almost extinct in Tulare County, and those remaining live only in clean streams that flow all year. Flowing water that meets that description is rare on the Valley floor at any time, but particularly so as the Western US undergoes yet another extended period of drought.
The language in the protection order is too vague about where members of R. boylii conduct the business of sitting on lily pads and snapping up flies, Townsend says, and this lack of specificity could impact residents in unintended ways. Presumably those ways are mainly economic, though the supervisor was not specific.
“When you take these designations — in this particular case with the yellow-legged frog — one of the problems with the listing was that the (habitat) range was really not well defined in the listing, so it could affect large swaths of not only our county, but also neighboring counties,” he said.
Further, the approach to protecting the yellow-legged frog is too blunt, according to Townsend, and it involves the sacred cow of the San Joaquin Valley: water rights. Ironically, granting a more protected status to R. boylii could result in more water storage here. Townsend and those he is working with on the issue don’t like the idea, one that’s been championed by many scufflers in the neverending California water battles for decades as a means of easing the state’s various water-related woes.
“And then the mitigation measures that are suggested were really focused on one thing and that was reservoirs or the diversion of water, and there was no discussion in the listing about the effects of the watershed or forest management, things that could have much more impact than just a straight listing,” Townsend said.
Making a Federal Case Out of It
With those concerns in mind, Townsend and his fellow supervisors decided to appeal to the feds.
“So we (the supervisors) put it up for consideration, drafted a letter (in opposition to the change in R. boylii‘s status designation) and put it up for consideration,” he said. “And also we went to the federal level to Congress (Kevin) McCarthy’s office.”
Tulare County’s former congressman, Devin Nunes, resigned unexpectedly at the end of 2021, leaving Townsend and company seeking elsewhere for help. Giving no specifics about the additional “issues” closer inspection the R. boylii proposal yielded, Townsend said McCarthy’s office found them and used them as a rallying point for a larger Republican opposition response.
“They also looked into it, found several other issues and got several of the congressional members onboard to also sign an opposition letter,” Townsend said.
Also, adding enhanced protection for R. boylii may not be as certain as Miller thinks.
“We’re still within the comment period is why it’s not actually a done deal,” said Townsend. “So they’re still looking for public comment, so I asked that we bring it for Board consideration.”
The supervisors voted 5-0 to approve sending the letter.
County Lost Fish & Wildlife Commission’s Bylaws
Also on the supervisor’s February 8 agenda was adoption of “newly revised” bylaws for the Tulare County Fish and Wildlife Commission. The revisions were extensive, constituting an entirely new set of operating rules. The brand new bylaws were needed, said Agricultural Commissioner and Sealer Tom Tucker, because his office lost the old ones.
“What has occurred is that some time ago I found out that we could not find the current or actual bylaws,” he said. “We went through a search of our records, everybody’s records, and we could not produce them.”
Tulare County covers an area of just more than 4,800 square miles — making it larger than both Rhode Island (1,214 square miles) and Delaware (1,982 square miles), and rivaling in area the 5,500-square-mile state of Connecticut. Roughly 60 percent of it is uninhabited wilderness. Given that, TC Fish and Wildlife’s funding — which seems to be somewhere in the range of $5,000 a year; records for the body are sketchy — and its activity level seem unusually low.
The commission meets sporadically, with its primary work being granting the money from its budget to projects that meet the commission’s stated purpose of conservation, protection and enhancement of the county’s flora and fauna and the habitats that support them.
Tucker said the commission felt it needed a set of bylaws to guide its operation. Elected bodies and the commissions that serve them must have bylaws, according to state law. Finding out the bylaws were missing prompted the “revision.”
“We did not want to be without them,” Tucker said, and the lost bylaws presented an opportunity to start from scratch. “So working with County Counsel, we essentially went through a complete revise, so that’s where we are at this point.”