Covering Louisiana

Aug 20, 2014 6:39 AM by AP

Bench trial in endangered frog habitat suit

A federal judge is hearing arguments on the claim that federal wildlife officials made an illegal land grab by listing 1,500 acres of private land in Louisiana as critical habitat for an endangered burrowing frog.

U.S. District Judge Martin L.C. Feldman scheduled a bench trial Wednesday for the challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of 1,500 acres in Louisiana as necessary for the dusky gopher frog's survival.

The 3½-inch-long frogs once lived in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Now an estimated 100 to 200 adults live in a few spots in Mississippi, with fewer than 900 in zoos around the country. There's no way to get a good head count because they live underground, though scientists count the number that spawn each year.

The Pacific Legal Foundation sued the agency last year for Markle Interests, LLC, a Louisiana landowner, after some of its land in St. Tammany Parish and 5,000 acres in Mississippi was named critical habitat for the frog, which lives in burrows in sandy pine forests and breeds only in ponds so shallow they dry up each summer.

The land owned by Markle and others was the frogs' last known breeding ground in Louisiana. It holds five temporary ponds within hopping distance.

The designation is unreasonable and illegal since no frogs live there and the owner won't make changes needed to make it suitable for the frogs, said attorney Reed Hopper.

"Not only are these 1,544 acres unoccupied by the dusky gopher frog, the property is unsuitable as habitat for the frog," Hopper said in a news release. "To my knowledge, this is the first time federal officials have set aside 'habitat' that is both unusable by and inaccessible to the species that is supposedly being protected."

He said this could let the Fish and Wildlife Service regulate any land it believes may someday be useful in conservation or recovery. "This interpretation exceeds federal statutory and constitutional authority and suggests that no property is safe from the grasping hands of overzealous bureaucrats bent on federalizing private property."

The listing requires only the agency's consultation on federal contracts, Wildlife and Fisheries officials have said.

Spokeswoman Connie Dickard said in an email Tuesday that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

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