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Leopard frog habitat plan jumps ahead

Threatened frogs could receive 11,000 acres of protected habitat

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking to designate more than 11,000 acres in Arizona and New Mexico as critical habitat for the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog.

If approved, the plan would prohibit federal agencies from permitting or funding activities such as grazing, mining and sport fishing if they could harm, harass or kill the frogs.

"It puts a caution flag on the map telling people to maintain the area for frog recovery," said Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the agency.

The critical habitat is set to be approved by the Department of the Interior by March 2012 after an economic analysis, environmental assessment and public comment period.

The proposed critical habitat would provide corridors connecting frog ponds and seasonal wetlands to promote breeding and genetic diversity.

"It is essentially a road map for recovery," Humphrey said.

The critical habitat would be located in Apache, Cochise, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Pima, Santa Cruz and Yavapai counties as well as five counties in western New Mexico.

The frog once ranged across mountainous areas of Arizona and New Mexico but not occupies less than 20 percent of its historical range. Factoring in its decline have been predation by non-native aquatic species, fungal disease and habitat loss from livestock grazing, mining and stream diversions.

Although the burden of maintaining the proposed critical habitat wouldn't fall on the Arizona Game and Fish Department, officials there already are heavily involved in the recovery effort and will continue playing an active role, said Mike Sredl, a herpetologist with the department.

"I feel very proud of being a part of the Chiricahua leopard frog recovery effort," he said.

For example, Sredl said, under a safe harbor agreement with federal officials Game and Fish seeks out private landowners willing to provide a habitat for the frogs and guides them through creating a beneficial habitat.

"We have made some great strides in Arizona to rebuild the populations," he said. "We have had some outstanding success."

However, Noah Greenwald, an endangered species director with the Tucson-based Center of Biological Diversity, said the group plans on asking Fish and Wildlife during the public commend period to increase the acreage involved.

The group originally petitioned to have the frog put on the endangered species list and eventually sued Fish and Wildlife to finally get the frog listed as threatened, which happened in 2002.

Greenwald said he'd like to see the area near the Rosemont Copper Mine located south of Tucson included in the proposal, for example, because the frogs have been found in the area.

"Generally in order to protect a species you have to protect the places where they live," Greenwald said. "The best way to give a native species a chance is to give them the most habitat."

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Jennifer Gaie Hellum/Cronkite News Service

A young Chiricahua leopard frog, shown in a file photo from September 2010, is ready for release into a forest pool near Star Valley. Biologists raise the threatened species in captivity as part of a program that recently released its 10,000th frog into the wild.

Facts about Chiricahua leopard frogs

  • Size: Four to 5 inches long.
  • Coloring: Green and brown with small dark spots.
  • Habitat: Lives on the edges of ponds and streams in the mountains and high valleys.
  • Breeding: Can lay anywhere from 800-1,500 eggs.
  • Call: Sounds like a long snore