CAN WE NOW PROTECT THE GOPHER FROG?

by Whit Gibbons


December 10, 2006


This column was inspired by two seemingly unrelated events. First, Michael Dorcas of Davidson College and I are in the process of writing a book called "Frogs and Toads of the Southeast" to be published by the University of Georgia Press. Second, when the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives reconvene next month they will have a different configuration. What is the common thread between these two situations? Environmental protection, specifically, protection for the gopher frog.

Anyone writing about frogs quickly realizes that the numbers for individuals, populations, and species are declining worldwide at a rate faster than any since the dinosaurs disappeared. The geographic reach of this frog problem includes the United States, where we supposedly have an enlightened attitude about conservation and the environment. Our conservation ethic should translate into protection of our native wildlife, especially when we can identify measures that could be taken to preserve the integrity of a species. Too often, however, environmental concerns take a backseat to commercial enterprises if vast sums of money can be made at the expense of a species that may need protection. In the last few years murmurings that we need to weaken the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 have floated across the halls of Congress and throughout the land.

But a frequently repeated statement in the ESA is that the government's approach to coping with endangered species problems will be "based on the best scientific and commercial data available." In other words, economic considerations are already incorporated into the question of how to deal with endangered species. So, any time I see someone crafting a plan to weaken or contravene the rules of the ESA, I get suspicious.

Meanwhile, the gopher frog is the most appealing frog I know, in several ways. A calling male sounds exactly like someone snoring, a loud and marvelous noise you can actually enjoy, when it's coming from a frog and not your bedmate. Another lovable feature is that when you pick up a gopher frog, it will put its hands in front of its face, like a child playing peek-a-boo. When they do look at you, gopher frogs have a big-eyed, imploring look that seems to ask, "Have we met before?"

Gopher frogs once ranged from North Carolina through most of Florida to Louisiana. But the number discovered in recent decades has been disturbingly low. None have been seen in Louisiana since the 1960s. In Mississippi they now exist only in two small breeding populations. They are still known from a few sites in southern Alabama. In the last two decades, most sightings of South Carolina gopher frogs have been on the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site, where habitat protection and opportunities for ecological field research are ideal. Likewise, in Georgia most have been found in undeveloped areas: on two military bases and a private quail plantation. Those in Mississippi and Louisiana are officially recognized as "endangered," but elsewhere they have no true protection.

Unfortunately, if you have not seen a gopher frog, you may never get a chance to do so, and almost certainly your great-grandchildren will not unless we take immediate steps to conserve this charming creature. The gopher frog is rare, is seemingly becoming rarer, and needs to be protected in every state where it occurs. In earlier years, state departments of natural resources, federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and private timber and pulpwood companies expressed concern about the species. This evidence of concern was a good sign, an indication that many people cared about the status and fate of this fascinating animal.

Now is the time to reestablish a proper sense of balance about protecting gopher frogs and other native wildlife. The current congressional makeup is unlikely to allow any changes in laws and regulations that weaken the ESA. That threat is presumably behind us for awhile. Now we need to start assiduously implementing the endangered species process again. Let's not permit commercial exploitation to stand in the way of protecting our natural heritage of native plants and animals. Balancing economic and environmental concerns is in the best interest of all species--including our own. Let's start with the gopher frog.



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