The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the dusky gopher frog, also called the Mississippi gopher frog, as one of the top 100 most endangered species in the world. These frogs historically lived throughout southwest Alabama, southern Mississippi and southeast Louisiana. The State of Mississippi classified the frog as endangered in 1992, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed suit in 2001. They are the only frog species endemic to the southeastern United States considered endangered.
Much of the longleaf pine forests where Mississippi gopher frogs historically made their homes has been leveled by the timber industry. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 2,000 acres of critical habitat for the frogs, requiring federal permits to alter those areas. As of 2012, gopher frogs live in the wild around only three ponds in southern Mississippi. When gopher frogs were discovered at one of these ponds, dubbed “Mike’s Pond,” in 2004, the landowner made a private donation of 292 acres surrounding the pond to The Nature Conservancy, which is actively maintaining that land to conserve the gopher frog population there.
Persistent drought conditions and lack of fires are two major reasons for the Mississippi gopher frog’s decline. These frogs depend on regular fires to burn away the brush and small trees in their habitats. The shallow ponds where they lay their eggs depend on steady rainfall, and are frequently dry for much of the year. The Nature Conservancy manages the site around Mike’s Pond by using controlled fires to burn away the undergrowth and remove cogongrass, an invasive species that takes over and chokes out natural vegetation on which the gopher frog depends.
Breeding and Repopulation
Biologists have started breeding programs at five different zoos. As of 2001, around 1,500 Mississippi gopher frogs were being raised in captivity. The goal is to raise tadpoles in controlled environments to give them a head start, then release them into the wild in hospitable locations. This not only strengthens populations in existing locations, but provides the opportunity to start new populations in other areas. In 2004, tadpoles were transferred to a 1,700 acre wildlife preserve in the hopes of establishing a new breeding population.
The Center for Biological Diversity has been instrumental in using legal channels to secure needed habitat and protection for the Mississippi gopher frog. Critical habitat for the frog was established in part because of the Center’s 2007 lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2010, the Service brought 6,477 acres under its protection in response to a notice of intent to sue filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. Despite the Mississippi gopher frog’s official designation as endangered, and the establishment and protection of critical habitat, the government didn’t outline a specific plan of action to recover the species' population. In late 2012, the Center filed another notice of intent to sue with the Department of the Interior, citing the failure of the Fish and Wildlife Service to design and implement a recovery plan.
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