Federal court fight to save frog could impact fracking in St. Tammany

A small and rare frog could block a multi-million dollar fracking proposal in St. Tammany.

A federal agency has been accused of exceeded its authority in naming 1,500 acres of private land as critical habitat for a frog that hasn't been seen in the area in nearly 50 years.

It's one of the rarest amphibians in North America.

"These are adults, as big as they get," said Nick Hanna with Audubon Zoo.

While the dusky gopher frogs rested quietly beneath the Audubon Zoo oaks, 11 lawyers were battling over their future 5 miles down Magazine Street in Federal Court.

"What we're concerned about is over-reaching on the part of U.S. Fish and Wildlife," said Reed Hopper, one of the landowner's attorneys.

The owners of land north of Mandeville have proposed using 1,500 acres as a site for oil fracking. But before that can happen, they have to get past the U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service, which has declared the land as critical habitat for the frog.

"The dusky gopher frog is one of the most endangered species in all the United States. Less than 100 adults remain," said Collette Adkins Giese, with the Center for Biological Diversity.

But the frog resides in Mississippi, and hasn't been seen in St Tammany since 1965.

"This is a test case with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. This is the first time they've extended their authority this far," said Hopper.

The frog  only travels about 1,000 feet during it's entire life, and could be reintroduced in St Tammany.

"This frog is a part of Louisiana's natural history - a heritage that the Endangered Species Act hopes to preserve," said Giese.

In court, Judge Martin Feldman expressed concerns, saying "This takes the property out of commerce for a while. The ultimate issue is, is it within your statutory authority?"

Lawyers for U.S. Fish and Wildlife argued that they have the power.

"It's part of our food web, and it's declining because of human impacts, and we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to make sure this frog survives for generations to enjoy," said Giese.

Regardless of Feldman's decision, preservationists indicated in court that there may be room for compromise down the road. They say a retirement community is being developed in nearby critical habitat.

"The Traditions Development in Mississippi is an example of a landowner working with wildlife groups to ensure that use of the land can go forward with endangered species protection," said Giese.

Landowners eager to drill have plenty on the line.

"Fifteen-hundred acres of private land at a cost to landowner of $34 million, and yet it provides no benefit to the species because it doesn't constitute actual habitat," said Hopper.

But in order to frack, they must get past the frog.

Feldman said he would rule as soon as possible, on whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service exceeded its authority.

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