Utah ushers its frogs toward oblivion

  • Leopard frog

    Dick Randall/Defenders of Wildlife
  • David Ross: The indicator biologist

    Sue Bellagamba
  • A baby desert tortoise

    Bob Miles/Arizona Game & Fish
  • Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt

    Salt Lake Tribune
  • Utah State Sen. Met Johnson

    Salt Lake Tribune

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 the spring.

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 pools.

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 and trenches.


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 1991.

"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 land.

"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 attention.

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 remarkable animals."

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 demographic threshold.

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.


It 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.

The official 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 political."

Gov. Mike Leavitt says flatly that there was no collusion between his administration and developers.

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."

Although state 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.

A disappointed 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 biologists ousted.

"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 themselves.


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.

Although the 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.

The Leavitts 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.

By 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."

In the 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.

"We said 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 trouble."

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."

Johnson, a 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.


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 tortoises.

"Friends who 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 greatly changed."

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 11).

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."


As far as David Ross is concerned, the story of his career in Utah is part of a much larger picture.

"The 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 care.

"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 range.

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 at best.

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.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Frogs: The ultimate indicator species

- There's plenty of money to study Utah's game

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