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Napa Valley Unified School District should soon no longer be running a wildlife preserve to help save the California red-legged frog, an undertaking that has cost it millions of dollars over a decade.

The district bought about 307 acres in 2007 for $4.6 million to serve as the American Canyon Ecological Reserve. This allowed it to meet federal Endangered Species Act requirements for the frog and other environmental laws in order to build American Canyon High School and a future middle school.

But the district never intended to run the preserve itself. Rather, the plan from the start has been to give the preserve to an agency that specializes in these undertakings.

On Nov. 16, the state Wildlife Conservation Board authorized the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to accept the land from the school district. The district will provide a $1.4 million endowment to support habitat monitoring and maintenance.

Once all the signatures are complete, the district should no longer have to pay several thousand dollars a year for a biologist to survey the property and make annual reports.

“It will be a relief to the school district to finally bring it to a conclusion,” district construction chief Don Evans said.

Bullfrog battles

The California red-legged frog is found locally in various areas near the border of Napa and Solano counties, including the brush-covered hills separating American Canyon, Fairfield and Benicia. There, this rare native frog wages a constant battle to avoid being eaten by the common, non-native bullfrog.

That means one task at the American Canyon Ecological Preserve is to keep bullfrogs at bay. The school district built a one-acre pond designed by its depth and other factors to be unwelcoming to bullfrogs, but a perfect home for red-legged frogs.

But the school district is in the business of educating children, not battling bullfrogs.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The district initially hoped the Land Trust of Napa County would take over the property.

“We wanted to walk away from it,” Evans said. “We wanted to buy it and turn it over to them, never having to maintain it.”

When that didn’t work out, the district turned to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to be the preserve owner and manager. The two parties had some terms of the agreement worked out in 2010, but only now has the deal come to fruition.

“This has taken years and years,” Evans said.

More than red-legged frogs should benefit from the American Canyon Ecological Reserve. Botta’s pocket gophers, savannah sparrows, deer mice and Western burrowing owls find this area to their liking. Also, the state considers the property as potential habitat for rare Callippe silverspot butterflies.

The general public might be allowed to visit this California red-legged frog paradise, though plans are for docent-led hikes only. Local high school students interested in biology might have the chance to meet a frog close-up.

“They tell me if you walk along quietly, you’ll see a red-legged frog,” Evans said.

Some people might wonder why the federal laws should force a school district to spend millions of dollars to help California red-legged frogs. They might wonder what would be so bad if this particular frog species went extinct.

“I think it’s really an ecosystem function,” said Ryan Olah, coast bay division chief for the Sacramento U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office.

Red-legged frogs eat insects. They, in turn, are eaten by raccoons and snakes. In that sense, they are part of a complex food chain.

“We don’t always understand what might happen if you take one of these species out of the ecosystem,” Olah said.

For example, he said, sea otters eat sea urchins and urchins eat kelp. When the sea otter population fell due to fur hunting, the kelp-eating urchin population grew and decimated kelp forests that provide habitat for marine life.

Celebrity frogs

The red-legged frog is the largest native frog in the western United States. It is 1.5 inches to 5 inches long and its lower abdomen and legs are often red to salmon pink, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that listed the frog as a “threatened” species in 1996.

These are frogs of fame and distinction. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report said they are widely believed to be the frogs featured in Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 signed legislation naming the California red-legged frog as the state amphibian. School children from Sea View Elementary School along the Salton Sea – where no red-legged frogs are found – championed the designation.

The state legislation says that 1849 Gold Rush miners in the Sierra Nevada had more uses for the California red-legged frog than as jumping contest participants memorialized by Twain.

“Miners, known as 49ers, consumed nearly 80,000 frogs per year, nearly eating the species into extinction,” the legislation says.

He hadn’t heard that story before, Olah said.

“It’s one of the ideas people may have,” Olah said. “Evidence shows there used to be more red-legged frogs in the foothill areas, so the thought is maybe they ate a lot of them. I think that probably wasn’t the biggest threat to them.”

The most important step in the agency’s 2002 red-legged frog recovery plan is habitat protection, Olah said.

Creating frog havens

The agency in 2010 designated 1.6 million acres in 27 counties as critical frog habitat, including the hills where the American Canyon Ecological Reserve is located. Such status in-and-of-itself doesn’t set aside land for the frog, but shows where key habitat exists.

American Canyon Ecological Reserve isn’t the only local red-legged frog sanctuary. The Solano Land Trust has frog habitat in its Lynch Canyon Open Space Park and King-Swett ranches near to the American Canyon property.

“We see the frogs there, so we’re maintaining the population,” said Sue Wickham of the Solano Land Trust. “Whether we’re increasing the population, I really don’t know. You need long-term trends for that and you need consistent monitoring.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service also lacks detailed population count data to show how well the red-legged frog is doing. But Olah sees a positive sign.

“I think we’re setting them up pretty well by having land protected in perpetuity for the frog,” he said. “There were threats of (important habitat) to be developed in 1996 when they were listed.”

Wickham said caring for the red-legged frog can include such tasks as cleaning out ponds that fill with sediments.

“Typically, a pond will dry up for a period of time after the red-leggeds breed,” Wickham said. “That’s good for the red-leggeds and bad for the bullfrogs. If you have the perfect pond, it will dry up at just the right time and control the bullfrogs.”

The American Canyon Ecological Preserve combines with the Lynch and King-Swett properties and the Newell Open Space Preserve to provide several thousand acres that include red-legged frog habitat. It isn’t an isolated piece of frog paradise.

“That’s a really great property, how it connects with the other ones,” Olah said.

Other frog-affected projects

American Canyon High School isn’t the only local project that has had to reckon with the frog. Widening Highway 12 in Jameson Canyon in 2014 meant disturbing potential frog habitat.

The state Department of Transportation in its environmental report for Jameson Canyon project said it would preserve at least 147 acres of frog habitat elsewhere as mitigation.

Plans to build the Soscol Flyover at Highway 29 and Highway 221 will also have to reckon with the frog. Caltrans plans to preserve 27 acres of red-legged frog habitat elsewhere because the project—should money ever be found to build it—could affect nine acres of habitat.

With the clout of the Endangered Species Act behind it, the red-legged frog is a powerful creature. It compels school districts and Caltrans alike to spend money protecting it.

Wickham sees another side to California’s state amphibian.

“They can live under bushes and in cracks all summer,” she said. “They are pretty adaptable. Pretty cool little guys.”

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.