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California’s battle to control non-native bullfrogs


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Brent Bloom urges on his frog “Jumping Bob” at the Jumping Frog Jubilee Sunday, May 20, 2012 in Calaveras County, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Weeks)

Bullfrogs are the elite athletes of the amphibian world, with a thrilling leap that can surpass 21 feet.

But back home in their ponds, they’re nothing but trouble.

On the eve of this weekend’s famed Calaveras Jumping Frog Jubilee, state wildlife officials met to ponder the management of a disease-carrying invasive frog with powerful legs, a dopey smile and a dangerous appetite.

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Even as California spends large sums to help protect populations of threatened native frogs, especially yellow-legged and red-legged species, an estimated 2 million predatory bullfrogs are imported into the state every year.

A Bullfrog Peers Above The Water In A Display At The Trinity River Audubon Center. (Michael Ainsworth/Dallas Morning News/Tns) 

To tackle the problem, 34 policy proposals are under consideration, some of them aimed directly at the jumping competition itself: Swap the dominant bullfrogs for other species. Monitor the contest to catch any escapees. Restrict the release of contestants. Inglorious execution, post-Jubilee. Perhaps even ban frog contests — and the bullfrog — altogether.

Such actions would no doubt elicit howls of protests from competitors, but other measures and regulations under consideration are likely to be more sweeping — and in some cases, controversial — such as banning live bullfrog imports, forbidding the sale of live bullfrogs, eradicating non-native frogs in local areas, and improving habitat to better accommodate struggling native frogs.

“A package of strategies is really critical, because the frog is already established in California,” said ecologist Erika Zavaleta, an ecology professor at UC Santa Cruz and co-chair of the California Fish and Game Commission’s Wildlife Resource Committee, which met on Wednesday in Monterey.

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The size of a potato, with a basso “jug-o’-rum” call as unmistakable as its jump, the bullfrog was introduced from the Eastern U.S. in the 1910s. Like so many other newcomers to California, it loved it here and quickly became established.

Now millions of bullfrogs live in ditches, canals and ponds across the state, displacing much smaller native frogs, which the bullfrog devours. It’s as aggressive as the kudzu vine, which is engulfing trees all over the South, and the mongoose, which is eating its way through Hawaii’s native bird populations.

Bullfrogs are also blamed for the introduction of the most significant infectious diseases — a fungus and a virus — that are contributing to global amphibian declines.

But they’re a delicacy in Asian cuisines. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, piles of bullfrogs sit in tubs, imported for sale from frog farms in China, Taiwan, Brazil and other countries. They’re a tasty treat for urban water birds, as well, such as the Black Crowned Night Heron.

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They’re also beloved pets, sold online as tadpoles for $3 each.

And they’re entertainers. Earlier this month, bullfrogs were invited to the State Capitol for a jovial jump-off, with dozens of lawmakers and staffers hollering and tickling their frogs to leap for victory. The prize went to Assemblyman Phillip Chen’s frog named — yep! — Phil, who soared 12 feet 5 inches.

This weekend, bullfrogs are gathering in the Sierra Foothills town of Angels Camp — dubbed “Frogtown, USA” — for a competition that started 95 years ago to honor a Mark Twain short story and the paving of the town’s Main Street. More than 40,000 visitors are expected to come see its famous frogs.

In Twain’s tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a frog named Dan’l Webster was trained to jump higher, faster and farther than any other frog. He beat every challenger until the day that a stranger secretly filled him with lead shot, grounding him.

But Twain’s frog — which experts agree was likely the native California red-legged frog, not a bullfrog — bore little resemblance to contemporary competitors. While red-legged frogs are also good jumpers, they’re smaller, wary and more discerning in their tastes. Once plentiful, they’re now rare.

This April 19, 2005 File Photo Shows A Red-Legged Frog Being Displayed For Visitors After Being Captured By A Forest Service Ecologist In A Pond At The Mount St. Helens National Monument, Wash. A New Study From The U.s. Geological Survey Finds That Frogs And Other Amphibians Are Disappearing From Occupied Sites Nationwide At The Rate Of 3.7 Percent A Year. That Puts Them On A Path To Disappearing From Half The Occupied Sites Within 20 Years. (Ap Photo/Elaine Thompson) 

This weekend’s jubilee entrants are the amphibious version of thoroughbreds in horse sports, blue marlin in fishing contests and border collies in Westminster’s agility trials.

Last year’s winner, a bullfrog named “Old Papa” by owner Nolan Moncrief, 5, of Modesto, thrilled onlookers by leaping 19 feet and 1/4 of an inch — longer than the length of a large pickup truck. The record, set in 1986 by “Rosie the Ribeter,” is a stunning 21 feet and 5-3/4 inches.

“The frog is an economic engine for our small community,” said Laurie Giannini, CEO and manager of the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee, which contributes $5.2 million annually to the region.

Defending the event, “it is our belief that the number of bullfrogs jumped at the Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee will neither increase nor decrease the general bullfrog population,” she said.

The proposed restrictions “are just another extreme regulatory measure that comes from Sacramento,” said Chad Condit, chief of staff for state Sen. Marie Alvarado-Gil, who represents Calaveras County. “A bunch of bureaucrats sitting in a room don’t take into account the unintended consequences of what it would do to Calaveras County and other communities.”

The Asian Food Association did not respond to a request for comment. But in previous testimony, former state Sen. Leland Yee, who represented parts of San Francisco and the Peninsula, defended importation of bullfrogs for sale.

“For over 5,000 years, it has been the practice of both the Chinese community and the Asian American community to consume these particular animals,” he said. “They are part of our staple. They are part of our culture. They are part of our heritage.”

Live Frogs For Sale At Jamie’s Seafood Supermarket On Stockton Street In Chinatown On Tuesday May 04, 2010, In San Francisco, Calif. The Live Animals Are Killed At The Store Before Leaving The Premises. Several Merchants Are Crying Foul Over The Newly Mandated California Law That Prohibits The Importation Of Turtles And Frogs For Food Consumption. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle Via Ap) 

Meanwhile, the state is spending money to manage the frogs.

A permit to import frogs is cheap: $76. But it takes considerable time and effort for the state to issue and track permits, visit bullfrog vendors, do research, hold meetings and conduct other bullfrog business. Money is also spent on protecting beleaguered native frogs, such as improving habitats, regulating pesticide use and monitoring populations.

“Most bullfrog importation is being subsidized by California’s taxpayers,” said Kerry Kriger, director of the conservation organization Save The Frogs!, which recently created a Bullfrog Action Group to organize opposition. The group seeks a ban on importing bullfrogs and is also pushing for higher permit fees, better regulation and other steps.

The states of Oregon and Washington ban imports. So do the city and county of Santa Cruz. That ban has educated people about the risks and stopped sales in pet stores, although wild populations continue to grow, said Chris Berry, watershed compliance manager for the City of Santa Cruz.

More than a decade ago, a ban on importation was unanimously passed by the commission, which sets policy for the state’s Department of Fish and Game. But the department didn’t implement the ban after political resistance.

Now that is again under consideration, along with other control and eviction measures. A formal recommendation is planned for the commission’s next meeting on Sept. 23.

“The state has acknowledged the harms,” said Kriger. “But it has failed to take action to remedy the issue.”

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