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Red-Legged Frogs Thrive In Calaveras

The two children – Haylie, 11, and Beau, 7 – of the Calaveras County ranching family who first discovered red-legged frogs on their property last fall, recently made a new discovery: frog eggs, tadpoles and young frogs.

In mid-March 2004, Haylie discovered a red-legged frog egg mass during one of her early-evening field surveys and e-mailed the information to Harry McQuillen, chief of the Recovery Program in the Sacramento office of the federal Fish & Wildlife Service. Dr. Robert Stack, executive director of the Calaveras-based Jumping Frog Research Institute, was sent to the ranch to confirm her discovery.

“She made the correct identification on the egg mass,” Stack said. “Red-legged frog egg masses look like a cluster of grapes. She and her brother, Beau, also documented other sites around the ranch where they had discovered the string-like egg masses of California toads and the smaller egg masses of Pacific treefrogs. Both children are extremely intelligent and very dedicated to their new responsibilities as junior wildlife biologists.”

“It´s a wonderful story and a great example of how we can accomplish important conservation goals while we work to maintain the economic vitality of the family´s ranch,”said Stack, who directs the amphibian research and advocacy center that has spearheaded local and statewide efforts for red-legged frog recovery.

The institute advocates the red-legged frog as the celebrated jumper of Mark Twain´s story, and its Dan´l Webster Project – named for the fabled frog – seeks to enlist Sierra foothill ranchers in a voluntary program of good stewardship aimed at securing a future for the frog.

“This is certainly a watershed event in the history of our county. Somewhere up there, Twain is looking down on this whole thing, and he has to be smiling,” Stack is quick to add.

Federeal wildlife officials agree.

“We could not have accomplished what we did on the ranch this year, without the effort and observational skills of the children, along with the full support and cooperation of their parents,” said McQuillen. “The children were out early in the spring participating in population surveys, listening to the calls of the males and helping map out the areas on the family´s ranch where the frogs still survive.”

Their mother Norma agreed, “We´re much happier to see our children outdoors learning about biology, rather than sitting inside watching television.”

The family´s initial joy at discovering the egg mass became tempered by the reality that some of the newly hatched red-legged tadpoles were falling prey to hungry green sunfish, introduced predators that eat frog tadpoles.

“We had a hard time watching them get eaten,” Norma confessed. “We had concerns that maybe all the tadpoles might get eaten up by the fish before anything could be done to help them.”

But help came through the efforts of noted amphibian scientists, Drs. Mark Jennings and Marc Hayes, who proposed using a net that would capture the fish but allow the small tadpoles to pass through unharmed. On Mother´s Day, the entire family worked with Jennings and Stack to accomplish this task.

“By the end of the day, it was pretty difficult to find a fish in most of the areas we treated,” Jennings said. “Not a single tadpole was injured or damaged, in no small part, because of the children´s skill and resourcefulness. Now we had to depend on Mother Nature and hope for the best, which somehow seemed especially appropriate on Mother´s Day.

The children monitored the tadpoles over the following weeks and continued surveying the other waterholes on the ranch, and they occasionally found tadpoles, which Stack identified as Pacific treefrogs or California toads. In May, the children discovered a second location where red-legged frog tadpoles were present on the ranch.

“Finding a second location was extremely important, as not all our eggs were in one basket, so to speak,” quipped Hayes, research scientist in the Habitat Program of the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife. “This find also gave us more insight into the size of the existing frog population on the ranch.”

Norma said, “We were amazed at how fast the tadpoles grew, and when they sprouted hind legs, we began to feel like maybe they were over the hump.”

When the first baby frogs began poking their heads above the aquatic vegetation that sheltered them, Haylie and Beau were delighted.

“What a wonderful experience this has been for them, and us, too,” added Norma. “Our children are extremely proud to be playing a part in working to make sure Mark Twain´s frog does not become extinct, and my husband Danny and I are very proud of them.”

Asked to comment on their experiences in dealing with the government agencies that have been involved in this effort, Danny proclaimed, “The federal FWS has been very respectful of our private property rights so far, and we have also been very pleased to receive offers of assistance from the California Department of Fish & Game.”

Norma was quick to point out, “All of the horror stories we were led to believe about the FWS have turned out not to be true.”

“We´ve also been very fortunate to have Dr. Stack working on our behalf,” continued Danny. “He and JFRI have helped represent our views as ranchers when it really counted, like at a critical meeting early in January, when he brought in an outside expert to tell representatives from about five different agencies that cattle grazing could actually be a net benefit for the frog. Since then, there´s been no talk of restricting my cattle operation, only how to enhance it in ways that also help the frog. This is very important to us as a family, as we want to be good stewards to our land. So far, we are very pleased with how this is all working out.”

The California red-legged frog currently is protected as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Most biologists and historians are now in agreement that Dan´l Webster, the star of Twain´s 1865 short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” probably had red legs, Stack said.

Calaveras Enterprise story by Wayland Ezell. For more Calaveras news, click: calaverasenterprise.com