The Frog of War

By  |  April 21, 2016
“Septima with Tadpoles” from the Lost Roads Project, 1993 © Deborah Luster. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York “Septima with Tadpoles” from the Lost Roads Project, 1993 © Deborah Luster. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

If you believe that frogs have personalities, then think of the dusky gopher frog as a diva with a death wish. “They’ve got a very stoic, proud look to them,” John Tupy tells me as we walk along the bank of Glen’s Pond amid the skinny longleaf pines of rural south Mississippi. “They’re kind of the king of the frogs, at least in their realm. I mean, there’s no bigger, louder frog that would come to these wetlands.”

During the winter breeding season, Tupy comes here to count, tag, and monitor the frogs nearly every day, plus most nights when it rains—the frogs’ favored mate-seeking conditions. What started as research for his master’s degree became a lifestyle, one he didn’t want to abandon after he graduated from Western Carolina University in 2012. So he didn’t. When I visited in January 2016, Tupy, dressed in tan cargo pants and a sweater that seemed too stylish for tromping around a timber, was in his eighth year on the job. 

Tupy does an unsettling frog impression—not just the deep snore of the dusky gopher, but also the purr of the southern chorus frog, and others, too, self-taught from a CD of calls that he used to play in the car, forcing his wife to listen along. Their daughter was born in late February of last year—“right in the thick of a massive gopher frog breeding event,” he says with a laugh. “And that was the only breeding event I had missed since I started working.” Tupy has seen his share of dying events, too, like the time he walked into the lab to find nearly all of his lab-grown tadpoles belly-up, victims of some imperceptible poison in the water. 

The only full-grown gopher frogs I see while visiting Tupy are extraordinarily dead. Back at the lab, he shows me a specimen, grayish-green, floating in a small jar of formaldehyde. He opens a freezer, pulls another frog from a plastic bag, and has me feel its skin, rough and warty. I remember reading how, in the wild, those warts squirt out a foul-tasting toxin that deters predators. 

The dusky gopher frog is not an easy creature to love.

To me, this pompous, gray, quasi-poisonous, wart-faced amphibian has one redeeming feature, and it’s one I find heartbreaking: When the dusky gopher frog senses danger, it covers its eyes with its hands.

 

The pond where Glen Johnson first discovered the frog breeding event thirty years ago is now named after him, but he refuses to call it “Glen’s Pond” like everyone else does. That would be self-indulgent. He was simply there at the right place and time, Johnson tells me, his voice husky, his keel maddeningly even. “It was not that big of a deal.” In his late sixties, with a silver mustache and hair kept tightly trimmed, the savior of the dusky gopher frog is not quite at peace with the saga he set in motion so long ago.

Johnson was a research technician for the Forest Service, studying wood decay and termites. His interest in reptiles and amphibians was strictly extracurricular. Back in 1986, Johnson, his brother, and some friends had assembled the South Mississippi Herpetological Society. Johnson had been fascinated by reptiles since childhood, snakes especially. He knew almost nothing about amphibians, but when another member of the club secured a grant from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson, the group suddenly had a mission: to determine the status of the dusky gopher frog.

No one had reported seeing the species for more than a decade. The gopher frog lays eggs only in ephemeral ponds, the fickle, elevated type that dry up and refill throughout the year. For all anyone knew, appropriate habitat had been eliminated to accommodate highways or cattle farms, which gravitate to the same high ground where ephemeral ponds appear. But maybe not.

On nights after a heavy rain, when male frogs are most vocal, singing their throaty mating song, members of the herp society would pick a pond to drive around slowly and listen. In 1988, Johnson parked on the side of the road near a pond in the De Soto National Forest; a scientist from the museum and a colleague at the Forest Service had both mentioned the location to him. Johnson sat in his truck, trying to detect the gopher frog’s mating call beneath the buzz of insects and other frogs’ croaks. Nothing. He got out and padded through the weeds to the edge of the water. He waited a few minutes. And then he heard it: the long, sonorous trill of the dusky gopher frog. Not just a single call, but a chorus—this was a successful breeding population. “So that was kind of a thrill,” Johnson says, smiling at the memory. These days, that high has sunk, slightly, into some other feeling. With any sensitive ecosystem, meddling—even the good-hearted, frog-saving kind—has its consequences. And Johnson, for all his understated pride and gopher-frog cred, has something to admit: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but it seems like an inordinate amount of money and time and effort has been spent on the frog. And you gotta wonder—has it all been worth it?”

 

Priority level five: high degree of threat, low potential for recovery. That’s how Linda LaClaire, a mild-mannered biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, classified the dusky gopher frog in 2001. Only a hundred remained in the colony, all of them clustered in Glen’s Pond. Any biologist will tell you it’s awfully dangerous to have the last remnants of any species in one spot, liable to be wiped out in one fell swoop by a hurricane, drought, disease, or bad luck. LaClaire draws a stark comparison: “Could you imagine if there was just one town left in the whole world with people?”

When LaClaire joined the FWS in 1991, researchers were already studying the frogs at Glen’s Pond—how often they reproduced, how far they could hop. In 1995, LaClaire supervised the installation of a drift fence, a metal gate that guided frogs into a bucket, to be tagged and released. Over the next several years, it became clear that the pond was drying up before tadpoles could mature, and no other breeding populations had been found. All of this made the frog a shoo-in for endangered status, which LaClaire began pursuing in the late 1990s.

Official policy said that LaClaire had to designate critical habitat—an area where the species could thrive safely away from humans and other threats—within a couple years of listing it as endangered in 2001. In time-honored government fashion, however, obstacles forced delays. 

For one, good gopher frog habitat was hard to come by. The frog would lay eggs only in ephemeral ponds of certain depth and in areas abundant with longleaf pine trees. Such areas would need to be routinely set on fire, clearing pine needles and brush so that creatures could dig the burrows in which gopher frogs spend most of their adult lives (hence the name). And if the FWS needed to put critical habitat on private land—well, that never went without a fight. When LaClaire proposed flatwoods salamander habitat on private land years before, opposition reached a crescendo at a public hearing convened by the FWS. (Fumed one frustrated Georgia timber manager: “It’s this kind of mindless foolishness that makes people want to blow up federal buildings, send pipe bombs through the mail to judges.”) It had taken a decade after the salamander’s endangered listing to finalize critical habitat, and the gopher frog didn’t promise any faster turnaround. The way LaClaire saw it, if they didn’t focus on stabilizing the existing frogs at Glen’s Pond now, the species might not survive to find any other home. So researchers scooped up tadpoles from the pond and transplanted them to a lab, where they could grow up safe from harm, and the Forest Service, in cooperation with the FWS, began conducting controlled burns at Glen’s Pond. “I kind of think of it as triage, because there was just this one population,” recalls LaClaire.

In 2010, LaClaire finally put forth several chunks of land as possible habitat, but gopher frog experts were underwhelmed—it needed to be larger and more spread out. In fact, there was a nice set of ponds in eastern Louisiana, the last place the species was ever seen in that state, fifty years ago. It belonged to a timber company that had cooperated with LaClaire’s team in the past. And so she amended the proposal to include 1,649 acres of privately owned land in St. Tammany Parish.

She had already submitted the proposal when the biologist from the timber company got in touch. There had been a mistake: the company didn’t own the acreage. “So we went through St. Tammany Parish land ownership records,” says LaClaire. Some ninety-one percent of this tract, they learned, belonged to a Mr. Edward Poitevent and family.

 

Poitevent was polite but cautious when he received a phone call from LaClaire one Friday afternoon in May 2011, informing him that his land had been proposed as critical habitat for a frog. Edward B. Poitevent II is, in fact, New Orleans royalty. His father, the late entrepreneur-of-all-trades Eads Poitevent Jr., was crowned King of the Mardi Gras parade in 1974. Edward and his siblings inherited the family dynasty, making them the largest landowners in St. Tammany Parish.

The potential frog territory in question covered an elevated area across from New Orleans, nicely perched on high ground, out of the path of hurricanes. Poitevent had rezoned it and expressed an interest in exploring the oil and gas beneath the surface, or perhaps developing the area with houses and businesses. “Civilization is lapping at the shores of this land,” he told the Times-Picayune in 2011. “And given our experience with Katrina, we know that the higher shores are the place to be.”

To Poitevent, this critical-habitat business reeked of a government taking. If the designation went through, his family (and the other entities involved) would still own the land, sure, but to make certain modifications—including building or drilling—would likely require a “consultation” with federal agencies, who were at liberty to thwart his plans. (Poitevent declined to be interviewed for this story.) As he wrote in a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service: “That consultation is a bed of hot coals upon which the Landowners will be made to dance.”

Over the summer, the FWS hired a consulting firm to measure the economic impact of the proposal. They determined that the entire economic burden of the designation would fall on Poitevent and the other landowners, costing them as much as $36.2 million in foregone revenues. “The current owners wish to have their children and grandchildren take over ownership of the Lands in the future,” Poitevent wrote in another letter. He was baffled that a frog—one that hadn’t even been seen in Louisiana for half a century—might rob his grandchildren of their birthright.

In September 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service published its critical-habitat proposal in the Federal Register, opening it up to public comments and setting the habitat designation on the path to becoming law. The battle lines were set. 

It was not the first war between respect for private property and respect for God’s creation, nor would it be the last, which is precisely why it mattered. On a coast equally rife with wildlife and ripe for development, in an era when climate change could soon threaten one in six species on the planet, the fate of the Mississippi gopher frog was going to set a powerful precedent—of law and of virtue—one way or another.

 

On a January evening in 2012, three Fish and Wildlife Service representatives sat on the stage of the Gulfport High School auditorium. They had called this public hearing, as they often do when pursuing controversial measures, to seek input before making their final decision about gopher frog habitat. 

The scientists and landowners had both mobilized troops—more than a dozen citizens turned out, sensing that something they loved was in trouble. One woman, a member of a local Sierra Club, described a vision she’d had that enzymes from this frog might one day cure cancer. Another, from a fringe Tea Party chapter, insisted that the United Nations was using the Endangered Species Act to depopulate the country. And on and on. The hired court reporter diligently captured every word:

MS. BEREL: We are being bombarded from all directions from our own government—
 
MR. LITTON: Where the hell are those trees today? Same place those frogs are along with 50 percent of all the other species on earth.
 
MR. FOREMAN: —take, take, take. Yeah, we’re going to fight you every step of the way. We’re fed up with it.

The hearing was a rare chance to give the opposition a face. But virtually every person in the auditorium looked into that face, saw nothing but ignorance or bad intentions, and spit.

 

Another ephemeral pond, called Pony Ranch, sits not far from Glen’s. The Forest Service has been fixing it up for gopher frogs. That has meant hiring firefighters and bulldozer operators—not all of whom were enthused to learn that their skills would be used to build amphibian habitats, according to John Tupy. “But then they start doing a few, and start seeing the results, and they enjoy it,” Tupy tells me. “And then when they see one like Pony Ranch, where the frogs actually went to it—‘Well, holy shit, we did that! Y’know? We were out there, we made that berm and we pushed all that brush out and we burned it!’”

Tupy squats in the weeds by Pony Ranch Pond, enthusiastically pointing to a gelatinous frog egg mass. If anyone can make you appreciate an amphibian, it’s Tupy. But his wife never really wanted to come to Gulfport, and he’d promised her they wouldn’t be here forever. Now it’s time to make good. In a month, he’s leaving, moving to Florida, taking an office job with normal hours and benefits, saying good-bye to this stretch of forest. I ask Tupy whether he feels like he’s abandoning his frogs by leaving. “Yeah,” he says. “A little bit.”

 

Citical-habitat decisions are ultimately up to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it published the final gopher frog designation in June of 2012: 1,544 acres of Edward Poitevent’s land were deemed frog habitat. Edward promptly appealed that ruling to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, enmeshing himself and the FWS in a legal fight for nearly two years. In the end, Judge Martin Feldman, who had overturned major environmental protections in the past, sourly upheld the rule: 

The Court has little doubt that what the government has done is remarkably intrusive and has all the hallmarks of governmental insensitivity to private property. The troubling question is whether the law authorizes such action and whether the government has acted within the law. Reluctantly, the Court answers yes to both questions.

A week later, Edward Poitevent appeared on FOX News to discuss what had happened. He would give interviews to FOX repeatedly over the next year, the same tired pall always appearing on his face. “It’s just a massive federal land grab,” he told one anchor. The Fish and Wildlife Service would, time and again, decline to comment on air. Poitevent later appealed the district court decision. An appellate court upheld the designation by a 2-1 vote.

Linda LaClaire is just glad the frogs are still around. They’ve found their way to two more ponds in addition to Glen’s and Pony Ranch, and several zoos have managed to breed the frogs in captivity—but disease still haunts the species. 

After so many years of battling, the result is a paralyzing stalemate. Poitevent doesn’t plan to let the FWS transplant frogs to his property. Legally, LaClaire can’t force him to. But the habitat designation remains intact—meaning that, for all the sound and fury, Poitevent still can’t develop his property, and LaClaire still can’t guarantee the frogs another home. 

The war didn’t end. It just stopped. 

 

“It’s amazing to me what this has turned into,” Glen Johnson says. He tells me he feels almost guilty for his role in the frog saga, then edits himself: “Guilty is probably the wrong word.” I ask what he means. “I’m trying to be a realist about it,” he says. “Nobody knows whether we’re really doing good or not. I’d like to think that we are, and I think that we probably are. But nobody knows for sure.” 

Glen’s uncertainty feels oddly refreshing. I suggest that he might be the only person I’ve met who hasn’t picked a side. He disagrees. “I’m in favor of doing what we can to ensure the survival of the frog,” he assures me. He just needs to see both sides. “You consider that extinction is a normal fate of a species,” he wonders aloud. “It happens to all species eventually.” 

To hear the savior of the dusky gopher frog say such a thing is jarring. As the stakes continue mounting, scientists, landowners, and concerned citizens reassure themselves that they’re on the right side of the fight, that future generations will thank them for their adamancy, for the precedent they set. Yet Glen is left staring down the future he set in motion with a cool and unusual clarity, either unable or unwilling to forget that things will be lost in this war. Frogs. Dollars. A devoted researcher. A family’s legacy. What we’ve been given. What we might create. Facing these casualties, Glen Johnson does not cover his eyes with his hands.


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Jake J. Smith is a writer and radio producer from Iowa City, currently based in Chicago. His work has appeared in the Wilson Quarterly and the Atlantic, and on the Pulse, Sound Opinions, Only a Game, and NPR Illinois.