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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Is Toad Downlisting Overdue or Too Soon?

WASHINGTON (CN) - The arroyo toad's endangered status may soon be downlisted to threatened status although it faces additional threats and has not met its recovery plan criteria. The move is in response to a legal challenge, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal.

The USFWS listed the toad as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1994, created a recovery plan in for it in 1999, and designated critical habitat in 2001.

The agency's five-year status review in 2009 recommended downlisting the status, and a 2011 petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) included the toad in its request that the agency delist or downlist six plant and animal species.

"This notice is the result of several years of dogged litigation by Pacific Legal Foundation," Tony Francois, a PLF attorney said in his blog response to the proposed rule. "Rather than repeat the details for the Arroyo Toad, it is worth noting the pattern into which this action fits. Species are listed, frequently based on incomplete information. Then, the service fails to conduct status reviews which the ESA requires. Then, when forced to do the status reviews, the service ignores its own reclassification recommendations. Then, when PLF petitions the service for action, the service violates the time limits within which to act on the petition, and a lawsuit is necessary to compel a decision. This announcement is good, but it is five years overdue." The self-defined legal watchdog organization litigates for limited government, according to its April 2013 press release for a suit filed for the California Cattlemen's Association against the USFWS regarding the toad and the other five species.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that has litigated for the toad's protection both with the USFWS and the Bureau of Land Management, according to its press release, maintains the downlisting is premature. "The service itself concedes that the plan's downlisting criteria have not been met. Specifically, the recovery plan requires 20 self-sustaining populations at specific locations on federal lands. Yet the animals persist only in 17 small, isolated populations on federal land, mostly in the headwaters of coastal streams along the central and southern coasts of California and southward to northwestern Baja. The service lacks the data to know whether these populations are increasing, decreasing or stable," according to the group's press release." (Emphasis in original).

When the toad was listed, the primary threats leading to a 76 percent decline in the toad's populations were urban development, agricultural conversion, construction of new dams, road construction, recreational activities, introduced predator species, and drought, according to the action. More recently identified threats include livestock grazing, mining and prospecting, climate change and alteration of the natural fire cycle.

The USFWS maintains that though the original threats still persist, and the toads face additional threats, conservation plans have reduced the impact of these threats. "Working in partnership with the military, other federal agencies, local governments and private landowners, we have significantly reduced the threats to the arroyo toad posed by habitat loss, and degradation and predation by bullfrogs and other non-native species that led to the species being listed as endangered in 1993," USFWS Director Dan Ashe was quoted as saying in the agency's press release.

While acknowledging that it has "not met the exact number of occupied river basins identified in the plan," the agency maintains it has "met the overall intent of the downlisting criteria for the arroyo toad for the number of self-sustaining populations required for downlisting," because the established populations have been stable over multiple years, according to the action.

Further, the agency maintains that delisting would not "significantly change the protections" for the species under the ESA, and the critical habitat designation would not be affected.

Comments and information must be submitted by May 27.

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