Former refuge manager takes heat for saving frogs

by Hilary Watts

A federal biologist who was trying to save an Arizona frog from extinction recently found himself facing criminal charges.

The Chiricahua leopard frog once hopped from central Arizona to western New Mexico. But habitat loss, predation by exotic bullfrogs and fishes, and drought had reduced the population to a few small ponds in the Altar Valley, southwest of Tucson.

In 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began work to list the amphibian under the Endangered Species Act. When drought threatened the remaining Altar Valley frogs, Wayne Shifflett, manager of the nearby Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, suggested moving them from state land onto the refuge. But local ranchers — including Sue Chilton, who chaired the Arizona Game and Fish Commission for the last five years — objected, saying they feared liability under the Endangered Species Act should the frogs turn up on their grazing allotments (HCN, 2/21/05: Rancher wins big in libel suit against enviros). In response, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that Shifflett would have to get a state permit to move the frogs.

But the state repeatedly denied that permit, although it allowed University of Arizona biologist Cecil Schwalbe to transfer the remaining frogs from their drying pool to his own backyard pond in 2003. Shifflett, fearing that the confined adult frogs would eat their young, then took it upon himself to move 400 tadpoles to the refuge. He had a federal Endangered Species permit, but not the required state permit. The agency removed Shifflett from his post last spring, and he retired shortly thereafter.

In February, the federal government filed criminal charges against him for illegally moving the frogs, now listed as threatened. Rather than waste time in court, Shifflett agreed to pay a $3,500 fine. Still, he says he doesn’t regret his decision: "How often in your career do you have an opportunity to save an entire species?"

 

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