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New Sierra Nevada Land Designation Is Good For Amphibians. Bad For Humans?

Oct 4, 2016

Late this summer endangered frogs and threatened toads that call the Sierra Nevada home were given 1.8 million acres of protected habitat. That’s a good thing for the amphibians, but as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports private landowners and ranchers aren’t so sure it will help them.  

Yosemite National Park Biologist Rob Grasso and his crew of volunteers are in a hurry. They’re counting tadpoles from a pond and plopping them into five gallon orange coolers. These tadpoles will end up in a lake high up in the backcountry.

This group of volunteers and Yosemite National Park officials are catching tadpoles. They were then transported to an alpine lake.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

It’s 6 a.m. on a Tuesday in September and a helicopter is on its way to McGurk Meadow near Glacier Point to pick them up. Grasso says ponds in this mountain meadow are drying up at an alarming rate, which is putting the endangered yellow-legged frog at risk. He blames the drought.

“Even though it was a relatively wet year, the frogs bred, everything seemed well and good,” Grasso says. “But the meadow just drew down like previous drought years.”

They collect about 5,000 tadpoles with a bunch of nets. In one pond there were more than 60 tadpoles living in about a cup of water.

“Since we’re at the lower end of their elevation this might be a management if we want to maintain these lower elevation populations during climate change,” says Grasso.

Before the helicopter arrives to relocate the tadpoles an aerator is connected to each cooler.  At about 9 a.m. the helicopter arrives, the tadpoles are loaded and the chopper takes off. It’s an exchange of less than 10 minutes.

This is all part of an effort to protect three species of amphibians that live in the Sierra Nevada.  The Yosemite Toad, the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog, and the mountain yellow-legged frog have all faced over 50 percent drops in population since the 80s.

The recent listing of 1.8 million acres of protected critical habitat for these species was the final result of a petition filed in 2000 by the Center for Biological Diversity. Jeff Miller with the group says the species faces threats from livestock grazing, habitat destruction, a fungal disease and climate change.

“It sort of protects the habitat that’s essential for recovery,” Miller says. “Bringing them back to a point where they no longer need to be listed under the endangered species act.”

"If there's limited meadows or the meadows are only available certain times of the year then it eliminates our ability to use the backcountry with livestock and take the public." - Larry Knapp
Ponds in McGurk Meadow near Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park are quickly drying up due to the drought.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

A large portion of the area protected is in the Sierra National Forest. At one time the amphibians were in abundance there. 

Stephanie Barnes is the High Sierra District Aquatic Biologist. She brings me to a meadow in the Bull Creek Drainage, east of Shaver Lake, at 6,400 feet where at one time there were many Yosemite toads. Today there are only a few.

Stephanie Barnes with the Sierra National Forest is looking for frogs that were banded earlier this year.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“We’re finding them along kind of the edges of the forest around a lot of the old decaying stumps, areas where there’s rodent burrows,” says Barnes.

A transmitter is strapped to each toad so researchers can document the toads movements.
Credit Stephanie Barnes / USFS

Barnes and her team are holding what look like old-school T.V. antennas connected with a black cable and small radio receivers. They’re telemetry units that pick up signals from transmitters that’ve been strapped around the toads. When we get close to where a toad has crawled into a burrow the beeps get louder.

“We’re almost getting a double skip,” says one of Barnes’ crew members. “That means we’re really really close.”

Barnes says the protection of critical habitat gives the bumpy green, tan and black species an added layer of security since these toads don’t just live in meadows.

“It does make it a little bit more serious as far as we do have to follow the rules. Instead of it being a recommendation it’s actually more of a law,” says Barnes.

But security isn’t what some of the business owners that operate near the protected areas are feeling. Jim Clement runs Vermilion Valley Resort at Edison Lake in the Sierra National Forest. It’s a stopping point for backpackers on the John Muir Trail.

“One of the ridges that have been earmarked is Bear Ridge,” says Clement. “It’s directly above our lake.”

That means Bear Ridge is part of the protected area. It’s also one of the main arteries for taking people into the backcountry with the High Sierra Pack Station. He fears this is just the start of restrictions in the area.

Stephanie Barnes holds a Yosemite Toad baby at a meadow near Shaver Lake, Calif.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“Is this going to be a door opener to allow them to put additional restrictions on and that’s been a fear of a lot of people on the west side,” Clement says.

"Is this going to be a door opener to allow them to put additional restrictions on? That's been a fear of a lot of people on the west side." - Jim Clement

Clement is not the only person wondering what this protection means for his business. Larry Knapp runs a horse riding company called Yosemite Trails Saddle & Sleigh Station near Yosemite National Park. He says he’s been to a bunch of meetings around the park’s plan to protect the amphibians. He fears any future plan will hurt business.

“If there’s limited meadows or the meadows are only available certain times of the year that aren’t workable then it eliminates our ability to use the backcountry with livestock and take the public,” says Larry Knapp.

The federal designation requires agencies to take note of the species when new development, projects or programs occur within the protected habitat. And with the designation just having gone into effect on September 26 agencies are still in the process of figuring out what it means as well.  Yosemite is considering new rules when it comes to how humans can explore the newly protected area, which could mean limiting the use of pack animals.