Rare frog complicating land ownership issue

A dusky, wart-covered frog not seen in Louisiana since Twiggy was fashion’s “It Girl” is sparking a legal battle on two fronts.

New Orleans attorney Edward Poitevent wants to reverse the federal government’s decision to turn land in his family for generations into a habitat for the Mississippi gopher frog. Meanwhile, an organization dedicated to the preservation of species thinks the federal government is not doing enough to protect the rare frog.

Both complaints are likely to be lodged in federal courts within weeks.

The Mississippi gopher frog currently is under consideration for inclusion on Louisiana’s restricted list. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the Louisiana pine snake and the black pine snake also are in line for added protection, which would make it illegal to live-trap or kill the species without a permit.

At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working to carve out critical habitat for the frog.

The Mississippi gopher frog once lived in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. The frog lives in burrows or under old stumps, breeds in ponds filled by winter rains, requires longleaf pine to thrive and depends on frequent fires to maintain an open canopy for their habitats.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports the frog was last seen in Louisiana in 1967 and was last seen in Alabama in 1922. The only known surviving population, numbering 100 adult frogs, is in Harrison County, Miss.

Last year, the service declared 1,544 acres in rural St. Tammany Parish and 4,933 acres in Mississippi as critical habitat for the frog.

The designation stemmed from a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-headquartered organization that works to secure a future for species on the brink of distinction.

Poitevent, family members and a third party own the bulk of the impacted land in St. Tammany Parish. The property, which is used for timber, is slightly to the west of Pearl River and is bisected by La. 36. It was acquired in the 1880s by Poitevent’s great-grandfather.

After Hurricane Katrina, the land was zoned for commercial or residential use, although it continues to be used for timber.

Poitevent said the land is potentially worth $34 million, but no one will buy it with the critical habitat designation because it cannot be developed. He said he receives no compensation from the federal government.

“They walk around with blinders on,” he said. “They don’t acknowledge the reality of $34 million.”

Compounding Poitevent’s frustration is that the frog isn’t believed to even exist in Louisiana.

Placing frogs on the land would require regular burns that would breach the timber contract and spew smoke onto La. 36, he said. Besides, he said, the longleaf pines critical to the frogs’ existence were removed 50 years ago.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to two requests for comment.

However, in the federal register last year, the service tackled Poitevent’s complaint that the critical habitat designation will prevent future timber management and development.

The service wrote: “The designation of critical habitat does not impose a legally binding duty on private parties.” Activities that do not involve a Federal agency, Federal action, Federal funding, or Federal permitting, will be unaffected by the designation of critical habitat, according to the agency.

The service wrote that Poitevent’s land contains two historic breeding sites for the frog. The goal, the service wrote, is to “work with the landowners to develop a strategy that will allow them to achieve their objectives for the property and protect the isolated, ephemeral ponds that exist there.”

Exactly how long it would take to create the perfect habitat is unclear.

The service noted that it constructed a pond in the Desoto National Forest to create a breeding site.

“It has taken 10 years to reach the point where we consider this pond ready to be used as a reintroduction site, and its value as a breeding site has not yet been proven,” the service wrote.

Poitevent said allowing the frogs on his land would put him in jeopardy because the species could spread to other acreage he owns, expanding the critical habitat.

He plans to file suit in federal court to reverse the federal government’s decision.

Collette Adkins Giese, herpetofauna staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said her organization also plans to file suit.

Giese said the federal government needs to develop a recovery plan for the frog. Designating a critical habitat isn’t enough, she said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also needs to protect the habitat through such actions as regular fires, she said.

Giese said she hopes landowners will embrace allowing frogs to be placed on their property.

She said Poitevent’s property can be developed with the extra step of consulting with the federal government to ensure the progress would not harm the habitat. “I really don’t have any sympathy (for him),” Giese said.