By SCOTT PESZNECKER
and the Associated Press
A threatened species of frog thought to have inspired Mark Twain's tale of ''The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'' has been rediscovered in the county, 34 years after the frogs last were seen in the area.
The 6- and 10-year-old children of a cattle rancher found the California red-legged frogs while playing around watering holes on their property in the western portion of the county, wildlife officials said yesterday. They asked that the location not be disclosed as researchers work to protect the frogs and their habitat.
Robert Stack of the Angels Camp-based Jumping Frog Research Institute said the frogs were found between Valley Springs and Wallace.
John Buckley of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center said the frogs were once abundant in the foothills. They lived near ponds, streams and small springs, in pools of still water.
The population dwindled as more people came to the area, diverting water for their own use, Buckley said.
"It's very positive that there are at least a few of the red-legged frogs back in our area," he said.
Stack joked that the frogs are direct descendants of ''Dan'l Webster'' Twain's fictional frog after he verified the discovery in early October. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Don Hankins found one male and two female frogs Oct. 21, two weeks after a previous search was unsuccessful.
The last such sighting in Calaveras County was in 1969.
The service is offering to work with nearby property owners to see if the frogs survive there as well. Stack is seeking grants to develop a captive-breeding program to protect a population he estimates at 10-20 frogs, by nurturing some of the eggs next year.
He hopes to use the remnant frogs to one day repopulate the county.
As a threatened species, the frog enjoys protections that have caused some trepidation from property owners and developers who fear intrusive government oversight or a drop in land values.
The Fish and Wildlife Service removed Calaveras County from its proposed rescue plan for the species after local officials objected.