In the middle of the last century, thirsty pioneers traveling along the Humboldt Trail through Utah knew how to find potable water: If there were snakes and frogs in a spring or pool, it was safe to drink.
This method never failed
them. When Brigham Young and his plucky tribe of Mormon refugees
from persecution made it to the southern shores of the Great Salt
Lake in 1847, that rule of thumb may have provided as much daily
sustenance as the teachings of founder Joseph Smith.
Young and his people drifted southward along
the towering western wall of the Wasatch Mountains, crossing the
Provo, Weber and Bear rivers. They passed through surprisingly
fertile meadows, and ponds engineered by beavers on the knolls
rising above their future capital. In the evenings, egrets, herons
and cranes sailed into the backwater sloughs to feed on frogs,
toads, salamanders and other creatures. Lining the larger river
channels were cottonwood galleries, and at the foot of the
mountains, marshes and sheltering pools were thick with tadpoles in
Utah was a mosaic of exceptional
amphibian and reptile habitat because it contained such varied
geography. Not only did the snowfall trapped by the Wasatch
Mountains feed a moist nexus of wetlands where frogs bred, but the
bottoms of ancient Lake Bonneville and the Salt Lake Valley
historically held a network of interconnected sloughs. Even to the
west of the Great Salt Lake, in the stark deserts of the Great
Basin, seasonal pools provided refuge for frogs. And in the south
of the state, in the Colorado Plateau's red slickrock canyon
country, there was a diversity of snakes, lizards and anurans
(frogs and toads).
This country has been good
to the Mormons. A century and a half after settlement, Young's
messianic vision of a prosperous religious colony has borne fruit.
Utah is rich, thanks most recently to a tidal wave of urban
emigrants from California, corporate business relocations, and a
construction boom. From Salt Lake City to Provo, new construction
is racing down the Wasatch Front in anticipation of the 1998 Winter
Olympic Games. Around St. George and Cedar City, in the downstate
counties of Washington and Garfield, developers are clearing the
scrub for dream homes and shopping centers where once there were
cows and unbroken desert. In Moab, the outdoor recreation mecca of
the inland West, tourists are making cash registers sing. And just
beyond the borders of Zion National Park, developers hope to dam
the Virgin River and send its water to golf courses and swimming
Boom days have arrived, but the frogs
that guided the first settlers no longer sing. In a landscape
bearing less and less resemblance to the one the pioneers
encountered, they are disappearing at a prodigious rate. Although
the decline is accelerating with the latest boom, the stage was set
years ago. An irrigation network started by early settlers now
delivers water from rivers and wetlands to towns and farms along
the Wasatch Front. The system is huge; it has some 7,500 ditches
POLITICAL LANDSCAPES CAN
The frogs are not the only casualties.
Those charged with studying and protecting the frogs are also in
jeopardy. One, a mild-mannered herpetologist named David Ross, has
worked for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) since
"You need to know," he
said one evening at a Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City, "that
Utah is different from any other place in the country."
Ross was raised in Maryland, not far from the
famous estuaries of Chesapeake Bay. Rachel Carson tracked the
residues of DDT in the Chesapeake, Aldo Leopold took great delight
in watching the spectacular annual convergence of waterfowl there,
and countless scientists owe the beginnings of their fascination
with the natural world to this vast mosaic of water and
"I didn't go to school or become a
biologist in order to be politically subversive," Ross says. "But I
didn't want to become a doctor or lawyer, either. I wanted to make
a contribution because I just can't see the utility of ignoring the
fact that species are being eliminated from our world every day.
Science for me was a way of helping to understand why."
After completing a master's thesis on aquatic
turtles at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and
spending five years working as an ecologist for a regional public
utility, Ross was elated to land a job in Utah. He quickly earned a
reputation for thoroughness in his field work. One species in
particular - Rana pretiosa, the pretty spotted frog - caught his
R. pretiosa has unmistakable,
brilliant markings that make it resemble a salmon-colored gemstone
in the rough. "It can be the color of king salmon or pumpkin
orange," the 38-year-old Ross says enthusiastically. "The tint on
the skin is supposed to help it evade predators. When it moves, the
flash of color alarms its pursuer and has a dodging effect, like a
firefly at night, only this occurs in the water. These are
But herpetologists believe
the populations of R. pretiosa have fallen so precipitously along
the Wasatch Front that it may be close to the point of no return.
Biologists say that the long-term viability of a species is
threatened when the population drops below 500 individuals.
Although spotted frogs were once abundant and widely distributed,
Ross was able to document only patchy islands of R. pretiosa, all
disconnected from one another and all far below the crucial
Two reports Ross
co-authored in the early 1990s, the first on frog populations along
the Wasatch Front and another on spotted frogs in Utah's western
desert, verified the species' shrinkage. The causes of the declines
were cattle grazing, pesticide spraying, the introduction of
hatchery-raised trout for sport fishing and especially the draining
of wetlands for development. These land uses Ross cited are all
dear to the heart of the so-called Cowboy Caucus, a loose-knit
group of powerful, pro-development Utahns.
THE PRESSURE BEGINS
didn't take long for Ross to start feeling the heat. It began in
early 1993, when he heard rumblings that "my job would be toast."
In July, he was called upstairs.
"When my boss
dragged me up to the director's office, I had no idea what was
going on," Ross said. "I was the first one in a whole line of
people they wanted to get rid of." He was told to take a position
studying brine shrimp in northern Utah, or leave the department
altogether. In the ensuing months, some 50 scientists were
reassigned or pressured to leave.
reason for the changes was to save Utah taxpayers money though a
"restructuring plan." But Ross was unconvinced. When he asked Tim
Provan, who directed the agency, why the nongame positions were
being eliminated, Provan replied: "All I can tell you is it's
Gov. Mike Leavitt says flatly that
there was no collusion between his administration and
The Utah Association of
Herpetologists believes differently: "Apparently Dave Ross has been
able to open a few eyes which were, politically, better left shut,"
the association declared in its newsletter Intermontanus. "So all
in all the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources has decided to let
the Wasatch populations of the spotted frog go extinct, and to
ignore the rest of the state's herpetofauna."
"There wasn't any mystery to
what happened," says Ken Rait, public-lands director for the
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). "David was essentially
made an example of by the Leavitt administration and by Ted
Stewart's Department of Natural Resources of what will happen to
any biologist who tries to practice science that does not jibe with
the politics of the Cowboy Caucus. That's why Utah is now headed
for an ecological crisis."
divisions of wildlife have historically been seen as involved only
with game animals and catchable species of fish, they actually have
broad responsibilities. In Utah, the DWR is responsible for 630
species, only 71 of which are game animals. Nevertheless, some 85
percent of the DWR's $26 million budget in 1995 went to game
species. These numbers contrast with a 1991 report showing that
more people are involved in nonconsumptive enjoyment of wildlife in
Utah than in hunting and fishing.
Provan left the agency in August 1995. He says "realignments' of
wildlife departments are not unique to the state, "but none have
been as extreme as what went down in Utah. There's a power struggle
being waged between governors, legislatures and fish and game
departments that are perceived by development interests as having
too much power. The legislatures want to reign them in."
Provan's replacement, Bob Valentine, was a
favorite of the state legislature. A former personnel manager at an
aerospace firm, Valentine had no biology experience. He became
director only after the Legislature changed a rule that the
position be filled by a wildlife professional. As a duck hunter,
Valentine filled the new requirement that the director "have an
interest in wildlife."
Valentine maintains that
the shakedown among the nongame biologists was merely a staff
consolidation: "What we did was fold the nongame people into either
the aquatic or wildlife section. I don't think it was an
unprecedented thing. It's been done in other states ... the
reductions and consolidation were really based on a six-month
review of the division by the Wildlife Management Institute out of
Virginia. That was their recommendation. To suggest anything else
is a blatant falsehood."
The Wildlife Management Institute's
recommendations looked at ways to "streamline and consolidate," but
they did not suggest purging the nongame division. And Met Johnson,
a downstate rancher, two-term state legislator and a champion of
the wise-use movement, paints a different picture than Valentine.
He says he helped pull the strings that got Ross and other
"The first year of the
reduction in staff (1994)," Johnson says, "we shut down the funds
for the nongame division. Seventy employees got the ax. Whenever we
spoke, they (Valentine and Division of Natural Resources head Ted
Stewart) jumped because they knew we meant what we said. Just to
list the damn frog and put all that land in jeopardy is wrong and
we won't have it ... if it presents a problem for private-land
owners, you're dead, which they knew meant they'd be out of funds."
Johnson runs the Western States Coalition and
makes no bones about its mission: "We've dedicated ourselves to
making a difference in failed public policy and to counteract the
strategies of the extremist environmental movement that do more
harm than good."
The coalition, says Johnson,
aims to prevent the federal listing of the spotted frog, desert
tortoise and any other imperiled species. "The Fish and Wildlife
Service (the agency which lists and protects endangered species)
would be damn fools," not to cooperate, he says. "We have the
potential to generate enough outcry that not only can we do away
with two-thirds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but we'll
have them crawling to us on their hands and knees. That's not a
threat. That's reality. They're making themselves enemies
everywhere. Pretty soon there will be enough enemies and we'll
derail the whole Endangered Species Act train. If they don't
accommodate us, they are stupid."
Not all of
Utah saw things Johnson's way, and the housecleaning that swept
away Ross and other scientists was sharply criticized: "You can bet
most of the agency's employees are not working there for the
money," wrote Deseret News columnist Ray Grass during the purge.
"They're there because they love, or loved, their work and care
about their charges, be they deer or barn owls. (The Cowboy Caucus)
went after the DWR and it looks now like they won. They taught the
agency a lesson: "Mess with us and you'll be sorry."
SUWA led an investigation into the shakedown.
The grassroots group filed a Government Records Access and
Management Act request (the state equivalent of the Freedom of
Information Act) that sent state government members scrambling. DWR
officials initially responded to SUWA's request by threatening to
bill the organization $40,000 to copy its documents. The agency
backed down after SUWA staffers offered to go through the files
DEVELOPS A PROBLEM
SUWA's probe uncovered numerous examples of meddling by the Leavitt
administration in the management of Utah's wildlife and science
programs. The governor's own family had a sticky situation to fix.
In the early 1990s, outbreaks of whirling disease surfaced across
the West in wild trout streams (HCN, 9/18/95). Spread of the
pathogenic protozoan Myxobolus cerebralis - which deforms the
skeletal systems of wild fish species like rainbow trout - was
traced to hatchery-raised fish.
state of Utah prohibits the release of hatchery-raised fish into
wild streams unless they are proven to be disease-free, whirling
disease was discovered in 1991 and traced to the Road Creek Ranch
hatchery, owned in part by Governor Leavitt and two of his
brothers. The investigating agency was none other than the Utah
Division of Wildlife Resources.
initially denied culpability, but they were eventually charged with
30 violations of state aquaculture laws. They pled no contest to
eight violations; the rest were dismissed.
his own admission, Division of Natural Resources head Ted Stewart
didn't investigate the family as aggressively as he might have: "I
have not been able to take some of the actions I would have liked
out of fear that I would do your son, the Governor, more harm than
good," he wrote in a letter to Leavitt's mother unearthed during
the SUWA investigation.
There is no way to
establish cause and effect. But the state fisheries chief, Bruce
Schmidt, who had a hand in the investigation, found his job had
disappeared, along with 18 other mid- and upper-level management
jobs in his department. He now works in Oregon.
However, skirmishes over frogs and fishes were only part of a much
larger story, according to Bruce Johnson, who oversaw the state's
habitat protection programs for all endangered species. Looming
large was the Cowboy Caucus' fear of what protecting the habitat of
threatened desert creatures might do to the exploding
suburbanization of southwestern Utah. Prominent among these species
were the desert tortoise and the Gila monster.
"The best tortoise habitat happens to be on land where residential
subdivisions and shopping centers are being built," Johnson says.
"When development in St. George started booming, landowners who saw
that (endangered) prairie dogs were allowed to be killed in certain
situations wanted the same provisions for the tortoise. Our
department took a lot of heat for upholding the law."
Met Johnson (no relation to Bruce) of the
Western States Coalition appears to agree. "If you saw your
neighbor's property taken away and rendered useless because of a
desert tortoise, what would you do the next time you saw one of
them tortoises on your property? I'll tell you this: You know them
tortoises aren't going to last long. People are going to do the
shoot, shovel and shut up routine."
early 1990s, Bruce Johnson, a practicing Mormon, got tired of the
political interference. He and his staff knew they were up against
powerful opposition, but they vowed to enforce the Endangered
Species Act anyway.
anybody who drives over a tortoise with a bulldozer is going to be
prosecuted," says Johnson. "No one ever told me directly to stay
out of the area, per se, but I received word second- or third-hand
many times that the Cowboy Caucus would retaliate. And it did. The
governor let it be known that his Director of Natural Resources,
Ted Stewart, was pretty upset with our stand and that we were
supposed to be kinder and gentler and turn the other cheek. A few
of us kept doing enforcement work anyway, but at the same time, I
notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that there was
Funding for enforcement shrank, and
it got more difficult for Johnson's staff to do its job. "We were
already short of funding, although there was a surplus (of as much
as $200 million in the state treasury) available at the time, and
things got worse. We had truck-mileage restrictions and
boat-mileage restrictions. As a way of keeping us from doing our
job, it was very effective."
top-level manager with 23 years experience with DWR, was privy to
budgetary matters: "We know for a fact that the executive director
of Natural Resources and the interim director of Wildlife Resources
were offered the money to cover whatever shortfalls were allegedly
imagined, but they turned it down. They didn't want the money. They
had another agenda ... The only people who were spared were
fence-sitting, older managers who had never done a damn thing for
wildlife and knew very little about threatened and endangered
species ... It was never a money issue. That was all a lie."
When his job was eliminated in early 1994,
Johnson took a DWR regional law enforcement position in Ogden, but
left after five months. He now divides his time between running a
nursing-home management company and teaching wildlife enforcement
part time at Brigham Young University.
LOTS OF BIOLOGISTS,
A year after the blitzkrieg of
early 1994, the number of biologists working at DWR has returned to
pre-purge levels. But protection for nongame species has not. The
agency's biologists are working to provide plenty of pheasant and
mule deer for the state's hunters. They are not investigating the
state's fast-disappearing frogs and
escaped the layoffs tell me morale is in the gutter," Johnson says.
"No one is willing to stand up and do what is right. They do what
they're told, which is to not rock the boat. Gutting science is the
name of the game. A lot of the pressure came down not just from the
Cowboy Caucus, but we had a feeling it came from the highest levels
of state government because (of) particular families' involvement
in businesses from insurance to fish farms."
Bob Williams, the Utah state director for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service, said the mechanism for tracking the status of
amphibian and reptile populations has been dealt a serious blow.
"We relied so much on DWR nongame biologists to give us
on-the-ground decisions, and without that resource it will be more
difficult to make good decisions. It would appear they (the state)
don't have much concern for snakes or frogs or other herps that
don't bring in the money."
His complaint is not
new. Zoologist Vasco M. Tanner, who published Amphibians of Utah in
1931, delivered the following message to the Utah Academy of
Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1948: "(We have) ignored the 69
species of amphibians and reptiles in the state," he noted.
"Without the help from toads, frogs, lizards and snakes (in
controlling bugs and rodents) the agricultural interests would be
He called on the state to
support its nongame biologists. "We should have the best-trained
personnel that the state can produce and provide them with the best
equipment and facilities at our disposal. This personnel would not
be tied to political apron strings, but be free to carry out a
program in keeping with the findings, and with our peculiar
conditions. No group should be able to dictate a short-sighted
program which deals with a few species at the expense of the whole.
We need more science and biology in our management ..."
One could argue, as has U.S. Rep. James Hansen
of Utah and other enemies of the Endangered Species Act, that
species have always come and gone, and that threats to survival
have always existed. Yet herpetologists point out that worldwide,
frogs are declining much faster now than ever (see story page
Almost single-handedly, Peter Hovingh, a
Salt Lake City biochemist and well-respected naturalist, gathered
and delivered data to the Utah Nature Studies Society, which
petitioned to list the spotted frog as an endangered species. The
effort was derailed by the Utah congressional delegation. Although
there is enough supporting evidence to justify the listing, the
Fish and Wildlife Service was forbidden until this spring from
listing new species by the Republican-controlled Congress. Earlier
attempts at listing were repelled by the Cowboy Caucus.
"Utah is basically a (Mormon)
theocracy and if these species aren't important to leaders of the
theocracy - if they can't benefit financially from them - they
won't be of importance to the people down below," Hovingh explains.
"It doesn't matter how much you wreck the environment on earth
because everything will be rosy in heaven. Maybe a frog will be up
there, too, maybe all of them will be, because they're not long for
here, that's for sure."
Hovingh says there is
far more public interest in biological diversity than the
politicians assume. "There are people who like these animals," he
says. "I know a farmer who found spotted frogs and his wife told
him that she liked having them around, so he made sure they
remained by protecting the habitat."
A CUSS WORD'
As far as David
Ross is concerned, the story of his career in Utah is part of a
much larger picture.
state seems to have zero interest in why the frog populations are
crashing and what effect that is going to have on bird life and the
rest of the food chain," he says. "Recently, scientists discovered
that skin extracts from certain frogs are effective in fighting
cancer, but that's not the reason we should
"Frogs are the ultimate
indicator species. If a marsh or stream is suddenly vacant of frogs
and it's caused by siltation from construction or livestock grazing
or water diversion, that should be a strong warning that maybe we
should think about how it is affecting the quality of our drinking
water. The state just doesn't want to see the connection."
Frogs are barometers of change on a macrocosmic
and microcosmic level, Ross adds. They exist where there is clean
water, as the Mormon pioneers astutely recognized.
Before he changed jobs, Ross completed his own
regional summary on "species of special concern" in Utah (i.e.
amphibians and reptiles deemed vulnerable to habitat alteration).
Here's what he found in addition to the precarious status of R.
pretiosa: A relict subspecies of the leopard frog, the Utah frog
(R. onca), is already extinct from the Virgin River in Washington
County and from almost all of Utah and Nevada; the lowland leopard
frog (R. yavapaiensis) is rapidly declining, the southwestern toad
(Bufo microscaphus) is in trouble along the Virgin River. Further,
the Western toad (B. boreas), the northern leopard frog (R.
pipiens) and the Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla) are
either significantly declining or occupying a limited and withering
Utah's only population of Gila monsters
(Heloderma suspectum) lives in southern Washington County and is
declining due to habitat fragmentation and poaching; and the future
of the lizard-like chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus) is questionable
During his spare hours on his new job,
Ross had continued to document the decline of amphibians in
northern Utah. But this month the division told him to limit his
focus to brine shrimp or lose his job completely. It means that in
a state that historically held a rich bounty of frogs, toads,
salamanders and reptiles, not a single biologist employed by the
state is currently paid to study them full time.
Ross is considering leaving the state and going back to school. "I
would like to get out of here because it's damned frustrating," he
says. "I don't feel like I'm doing anything for the resource ...
really, how much controversy is there in studying the behavior of
brine shrimp? We've got three people detailed to brine shrimp and
none to declining amphibians only because brine shrimp are a
multimillion dollar cash cow." "'''Monitoring brine shrimp isn't
exactly what Ross had in mind for a career in biology.
From his office in Ogden, he can gaze, on clear
afternoons, over the expanse of the Great Salt Lake and imagine
what the first Mormon settlers encountered, and the frogs that led
them to water.
"I think in
some cases Utah will easily end up being a biological black hole,
especially in those limited habitats where there is already solid
evidence of species' declines. I hate to paint a pessimistic
picture, but I don't know how I can paint an optimistic one."
"Conservation is a cuss word
around here. What I've learned is, if you care for organisms that
don't have antlers or quack, don't take a job in Utah. If you want
to protect the diversity of amphibians and reptiles that the desert
Southwest is famous for, don't go to Utah. They don't want you, and
they certainly don't want those animals. It's one of the saddest
places I've ever seen in my life."
Todd Wilkinson lives in
Bozeman, Montana, and researched this story as part of a book he's
writing about scientists under fire. He has been a long-time
contributor to High Country News.