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Feds Must Count Snakes and Frogs in S.F. Park

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A legal saga over the California red-legged frog and the San Francisco garter snake at a Bay Area golf course is on hold as the government assesses population numbers, a federal judge ruled

Wild Equity Institute and other nonprofit environmental groups claim that water-management practices at the Sharp Park Golf Course in Pacifica, south of San Francisco, have decimated the red-legged frog population. They also say lawn mowers and golf carts kill or otherwise "harass" both frogs and snakes

At an April 20 hearing for summary judgment, the environmentalists presented depositions of park users who have been injured because they are unable to see enough of either the frogs or the snakes.

But the city and county of San Francisco claim that the frog population is actually growing. Also, pointing to an earlier ruling , the San Francisco garter snake has not been seen in the park for years.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled Thursday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should determine who is right.

"New evidence and recent FWS activity have called into question the growth of the frog population at Sharp Park," she wrote. "In its denial of a preliminary injunction, the court relied heavily on the city's ability to carefully move the stranded egg masses. ... However, the FWS has since revoked the city's authorization to move the stranded egg masses. It is unclear what effect the revocation will have on the frog's population."

A Sharp Park employee said she could not say how the frog population was doing, Illston pointed out. While the employee said the 2010-11 rainy season was the highest she'd seen, egg-laying fluctuates from year to year. Added to that, the environmentalists provided new expert testimony that says the frog population has stabilized, not increased.

Illston also appeared to reverse her position on the garter snake, rejecting arguments from the San Francisco Public Golf Alliance that environmentalists have no standing because they provided no proof that the city is killing the animals and that snakes are elusive and therefore unlikely to be seen in the first place. The alliance intervened as a defendant in the lawsuit.

"Here, because of the severely endangered nature of the snake, the take of even a single snake could have significantly harmful effects on the plaintiffs and their ability to ever see one," Illston wrote.

For the purpose of standing, Illston said she assumes "that plaintiff's remedial theories are correct - that halting pumping will cease the desiccation of frog egg masses and halting mowing will prevent the death of snakes."

Nevertheless, Illston stayed the matter pending the outcome of an FWS consultation.

"This case presents unique circumstances where, even taking plaintiffs' claims as true, no take of the egg masses can occur until, at the earliest, late winter 2012," Illston wrote. The frog breeds from November through April.

"As the FWS may issue a biological opinion within months that can at least inform, if not entirely moot this case, and because the breeding season for the frog will not occur again until late winter, the court finds this to be an appropriate case in which to exercise its inherent authority for a stay," Illston ruled.

The stay will allow an expert agency to review San Francisco's plan and evaluate the animals' fate at Sharp Park. If FWS has not issued its biological opinion by October 2012, or the case is not otherwise mooted, the environmentalists may move to lift the stay, Illston said.

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