The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has changed its mind about a move to downgrade the status of the arroyo toad from “endangered” to merely “threatened.”
The toad, Anaxyrus californicus, occurs rarely these days in its natural habitat, which stretches from the Santa Clarita Valley and Ventura County on the north to Mexico on the south. It was listed as an endangered species in 1994.
Believing its population was on the rise, the Fish and Wildlife Service was poised to take it off of “endangered” status after receiving a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation asking it to do so.
PLF, a conservative public-interest law firm that routinely challenges environmental regulations, filed the petition in 2011, claiming that the government’s latest five-year review warranted reclassification of the species. PLF sought reclassification of five other species at the same time (see below).
(Earlier this week, Fish and Wildlife downgraded the Florida manatee from endangered to threatened after being petitioned by PLF and a Florida business group to review the latest five-year data.)
For the arroyo toad, Fish and Wildlife reviewed the latest five-year results (from 2009) and agreed with PLF’s assessment. The agency proposed a federal rule change in 2014 and put it out for public comment.
In their comments and peer reviews of the proposed rule, biologists and others argued that the data didn’t support the notion that the population was on the rise. If anything, they said, it’s scarcer than ever and in danger of going extinct.
“In my view, the (Fish and Wildlife) Service violated its standards in interpreting the 5-year review as cause for downlisting,” wrote Samuel Sweet, a biology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who was asked by Fish and Wildlife for a peer review.
“(The) document contains nothing that would constitute formal evidence for a change in status. If anything, the 5-year review cites moderate to severe ongoing threats at most of the 20 indicator populations the Service identified as needing to be stable for downlisting to be proposed.”
Sweet, who had performed field studies of amphibian breeding in Piru Creek and elsewhere, claimed that the proposal “contains a number of errors that indicate an unfamiliarity with the landscape,” particularly in the Santa Clarita-Ventura County area, as well as “a failure to note near-total reproductive failure across all northern populations in 2012, 2013 and 2014,” along with other issues related to predators and the drought.
In recommending the downgrade in 2014, Fish and Wildlife acknowledged threats from urban development, water diversions, predators and drought, but pointed to several conservation and management actions that were undertaken since the toad was first listed.
One such management action was effected by the U.S. Marine Corps, which wrote in support of the downgrade.
“I am pleased to find that the implementation (of our Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan) has benefited the arroyo toad on base and has been an important and effective management plan supporting regional recovery and conservation goals,” wrote D.F. Levi, head of environmental security at Camp Pendleton.
In the end, however, the combined measures haven’t been enough.
“New information gathered through a scientific, peer-review process shows that populations have not stabilized, have declined in some areas, and that the toad still faces the threat of extinction,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its latest statement on the matter.
“This announcement underscores that the Service is committed to using the best available scientific information to inform our decisions,” said Steve Henry, field supervisor of the Service’s Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. “We look forward to continuing to work closely with our federal, state and local partners to fully recover the arroyo toad.”
According to the statement, “recent data suggest arroyo toad populations have not stabilized and are declining in both the southern and northern portions of the species’ current range. These declines are apparent in the following basins of the species’ current known southern range: the Lower Santa Margarita River Basin, Upper San Luis Rey River Basin, Upper and Lower Santa Ysabel Creek Basins, Upper San Diego River Basin, Upper Sweetwater River Basin, and Upper and Lower Cottonwood Creek Basins. In the northern portions of the species’ range, including the Salinas River Basin, Santa Ynez River Basin and Santa Clara River Basin, recent data suggest similar population declines. No long-term data are available pointing to population increases at other locations where the arroyo toad is known to exist.”
“No one would be happier than I if it was biologically defensible to downlist arroyo toads,” wrote the biology professor, Sweet. “But we are nowhere near that now.”
Fish and Wildlife published its decision in the Federal Register on Dec . 23, 2015.
* Pacific Legal Foundation’s petition of Dec. 19, 2011 sought delisting of the Inyo California towhee (Pipilo crissalis eremophilus), and reclassification from “endangered” to “threatened” for the arroyo toad (Anaxyrus californicus), Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps), Eriodictyon altissimum (Indian Knob mountainbalm), Astragalus jaegerianus (Lane Mountain milk-vetch), and Hesperocyparis abramsiana (Santa Cruz cypress).