Harrop: Saving a small frog is an enormous public good

If the Endangered Species Act is gutted, we will lose an ecosystem that benefits us all.

By Froma Harrop

The dusky gopher frog is a tiny thing. Once thriving in the longleaf pine forests of the South, only about 250 remain in the wild, in Mississippi. The endangered frog could soon disappear forever if the U.S. Supreme Court rules against a plan to preserve breeding ponds in Louisiana.

The dispute centers on the Endangered Species Act. Since its enactment in 1973, the law has pulled numerous native animals and plants from the jaws of extinction. An amazing 99 percent of the species granted protection under the act are still with us today. Many are doing so well that they’ve been taken off the endangered list; for example, the American bald eagle.

In the case now before the court, the timber company Weyerhaeuser claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had no authority to designate 1,500 acres it leases in Louisiana as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog. The surviving frogs don’t currently inhabit this acreage, its lawyers point out.

The government tagged that land because it is home to the rare ephemeral ponds in which the frog can breed. It could serve as kind of a Noah’s Ark ready to save the frog from oblivion.

The Fish and Wildlife Service argues that the law specifically permits it to designate potential habitats for species in trouble. Furthermore, Weyerhaeuser could still harvest trees on the land if it made “reasonable efforts” to support the species. And the service would help with expertise and money.

The landowners complain that their land would be worth less if it couldn’t be developed without restrictions. But steps taken for the public good often supersede such considerations. They include establishing historic districts, conserving wetlands and deciding where to place a wastewater treatment plant.

Saving endangered species is an enormous public good. And it should not be framed as favoring animals over humans. It’s in our own selfish interest to ensure the survival — where we can — of fellow members of the larger ecosystem.

Example: After being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, the formerly endangered gray wolf checked the elk population. That left fewer elk to devour willows and aspens. The flourishing trees cooled streams, helping the native trout. They provided shelter for migratory birds and food for beavers. The beavers built dams, creating marshland habitat for otters, minks and ducks. And so on.

The Trump administration wants to gut the Endangered Species Act, seeing environmental regulations as an impediment to business. And it’s also eager to auction off public lands for environmentally destructive development.

But there’s also a business ecosystem dependent on maintaining the natural ecosystem and defending public lands. Groups representing hunters and anglers sponsored a study to put an economic value on wildlife-related recreation. Looking at Bureau of Land Management acreage in 12 Western states, the researchers set the revenues derived at over $3 billion.

The most compelling case, though, is about not money but humankind’s duty to protect creation. “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed,” President Nixon said upon signing the Endangered Species Act into law.

Pope Francis more recently said, “A Christian who does not protect creation … does not care about the work of God.”

So this frog is not some insignificant amphibian to be casually wiped out. Its future rests on a court currently deadlocked between four “liberals” who would ensure its survival and four “conservatives” focused on the money. It’s safe to assume that if a Justice Brett Kavanaugh were to break the tie, mammon would win — and the dusky gopher frog would lose its place in our world.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. Email her at fharrop@gmail.com.

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