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Calif. Frog at Center of Protection Debate

"For better or worse, the frog has become a symbol of what's wrong with the act if you're on one side, and what's right if you're on the other," said Robert Stack, a biochemist with the Jumping Frog Research Institute, which works to ensure the survival of amphibians native to the Sierra Nevada.

As part of the endangered species designation, land is identified as critical habitat, limiting opportunities for development. That, in turn, could limit the availability of affordable housing in the state, said Paul Campos, general counsel for the Home Builders Association of Northern California.

"The environmentalists pushing this would like to see the entire state designated for one species or another," he said. "But you have to put this into a larger context. We need to provide housing for our future citizens."

His group sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over its initial proposal to set aside 4.1 million acres of red-legged frog habitat. The resulting court order required the agency to account for the cost of lost development opportunities and led to substantial cuts in acreage.

Federal officials defend the reduction, saying it's better to work with private landowners, who control most of the land where the frog, Rana aurora draytonii, is found, than to burden them with regulations.

For example, Fish and Wildlife is exempting ranchers from fines if they kill frogs during routine ranch work. Because both cows and frogs need open space and watering holes, work done to maintain ranches shouldn't be penalized, officials said.

In the past, ranchers had no incentive to help the frog survive on their land, said Al Donner, a Sacramento-based spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The old attitude was shoot, shovel and shut up," he said. "Now we hope landowners will come forward and work with us."

But conservation groups accuse the Bush administration of pandering to private interests at the expense of endangered and threatened species.

Of the 312 critical habitat proposals considered since Bush took office, 94 percent were cut, according to the environmental organization Center for Biological Diversity. The reductions averaged 79 percent from what was originally proposed, the group said. In contrast, 35 percent were reduced by the Clinton administration, and by an average of just 5 percent, it said.

"This administration is hostile to the idea of critical habitat," Davidson said.

In Livermore, the benefits of pastures over pavement are clear.

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© 2006 The Associated Press