By The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is designating nearly 6,500 acres in Mississippi and Louisiana as critical habitat for the endangered Mississippi gopher frog – the only endangered or threatened frog in the Southeast.
An estimated 100 to 200 live in the wild in Mississippi, and 892 in zoos, said the Memphis Zoo’s Steve Reichling, who keeps the gopher frog stud book.
Most of the land described in a notice to be published in Tuesday’s Federal Register is in Mississippi but it also includes the frog’s last known Louisiana breeding ground, in St. Tammany Parish, where five of the temporary ponds it needs remain in hopping distance of each other.
Edward Poitevent, whose family owns most of the Louisiana land, has been fighting the designation. He says he cannot comment until he reads the full notice.
Critical habitat designation requires Fish and Wildlife Service consultation for federal permits.
The land includes about 1,600 acres in St. Tammany Parish, La., with the rest in Mississippi’s Jackson, Harrison, Forrest and Perry counties. The Mississippi land includes about 3,500 acres of federal land, 264 acres owned by the state and the rest private.
The private landowners in Mississippi are working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said Connie Light Dickard, an agency spokeswoman. She said the Mississippi National Guard opposed designation of part of the DeSoto National Forest where it has a special use permit, but Fish and Wildlife doesn’t expect the designation to hamper the National Guard’s activities.
Gopher frogs live in stump holes and burrows dug by other animals, laying their eggs in ponds so shallow they dry up for several months of the year and are therefore free of fish that would eat frog eggs. They’re part of a whole ecology that depends on regular fires to burn away brush and smaller trees from the longleaf pine forests where they live.
It’s very important that the government included areas where the frog isn’t currently found, said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The frog has only been consistently breeding in one pond. That leaves it very vulnerable to extinction,” he said. “It needs to be recovered to more areas to have a better chance of survival.”