Endangered Frog Loses, Developers Win as Critical Habitat is Reduced

NOTE: The following is one of a series of case studies produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program between 2004 and 2010 to document the abuses highlighted in our 2004 report, Scientific Integrity in Policy Making.

In April 2006, the US Fish and Wildlife Service finalized plans to reduce by nearly 90 percent the critical habitat set aside for the protection of a rare California frog. According to FWS, a new analysis had shown that the cost of maintaining the original critical habitat for the red-legged frog was too high. But the analysts who made the cost estimates argued that the numbers were skewed, since they were not permitted to factor in any monetary benefits of protecting the land.

The red-legged frog is no ordinary amphibian. Up until the late nineteenth century, the frog was a noted delicacy of northern and central California. Moreover, the frog was made a legend by Mark Twain in his famous story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The story of the red-legged frog in the twentieth century, however, was one of decline. As human development encroached on its habitat, the frogs population steadily fell.

The red-legged frog was listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1996.¹  In 2001, the Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 4.1 million acres of critical habitat for the frog.² The designation of critical habitat put into place land-use restrictions meant to safeguard existing frog populations.  In response to a lawsuit filed by real estate developers, in 2002 a federal court required the Fish and Wildlife Service to review the economic impact of the habitat designation.³ This economic assessment led to the agency's 2005 announcement that it would significantly shrink the critical habitat for the frog.  The final rule, published in April 2006, designates approximately 450,000 acres of critical habitat—a reduction of nearly 90% from the initial designation.4

The Fish and Wildlife Service justified the habitat reduction by arguing that the cost of the 2001 designation was too great and would unfairly burden homeowners and ranchers.5 This conclusion was based on an economic analysis estimating the cost of the original critical habitat designation as $1.5 billion over 20 years.6 However that number assumes there would be no economic benefits to land protection. The Los Angeles Times reported that economists hired to perform the analysis were "told by government officials not to calculate benefits of critical habitat." Instead, the economists, Jason Moody and David Sunding, were told to insert into their analysis language prepared by the White House's Office of Management and Budget, saying that it was "not feasible to 'monetize' the benefits of land protection."7

Moody, whose firm has worked on a dozen economic analyses of endangered species protection for the Fish and Wildlife Service, charged that the administration's economic analysis inflated the cost of critical habitat and ignored the fiscal benefits. Such benefits could include clean water, tourism, and premium prices for houses located near open space, not to mention protecting the endangered species for which the habitat is intended. Explained Moody, "When you balance a checkbook, you add up deposits as well as withdrawals."8 

The case of the red-legged frog is just one example of how the Bush administration uses biased economic analysis to stack the deck against environmental protection. The Los Angeles Times reported that another study into proposed critical habitat for bull trout estimated that the protected land would bring $200-250 million in economic benefits. The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, removed these benefits from the analysis.9 

Robert Stack, executive director of the Jumping Frog Research Institute, summarized the objective of these economic analyses as follows: "to minimize critical habitat using whatever means they can. They're just grasping at straws to reduce the number of acres because they're fundamentally opposed to critical habitat."10 

1. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Species Profile: California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii),” accessed December 8, 2006.
2. Department of the Interior, “Final Determination of Critical Habitat for the California Redlegged Frog,” Federal Register, Vol. 66, No. 49, March 13, 2001, accessed December 8, 2006
3. U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, “Building Legal Defense Foundation et al. vs. Gale Norton et al.” November 6, 2002, accessed December 8, 2006
4. Department of the Interior, “Designation of Critical Habitat for the California Red-Legged Frog, and Special Rule Exemption Associated With Final Listing for Existing Routine Ranching Activities,” Federal Register, Vol. 71, No. 71, April 13, 2006, accessed December 8, 2006
5. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service press release, “Fish and Wildlife Service establishes cooperating rancher rule to encourage protection of the California red-legged frog,” April 13, 2006, accessed December 8, 2006
6. CRA International, “Economic Effects of Critical Habitat Designation for the Red-Legged Frog in 23 California Counties,” Prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, October 19, 2005, accessed December 8, 2006
7. Janet Wilson, “Habitats May Shrink by Leaps, Bounds,” Los Angeles Times, 4 November 2005, latimes.com requires subscription, copy available from advocacy group accessed 10 October 2006
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.

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