Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

A federal environmental agency could give two amphibians native to the Central Sierra Nevada protected status in the high country, in areas where cattle grazing occurs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced earlier this week it is considering a proposal that would list the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog as "endangered" and list the Yosemite toad as "threatened" under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Both designations protect the frogs' habitat. Both species call the Stanislaus National Forest home.

Researchers say they have seen marked decline in recent decades for many reasons, including the intrusion of invasive species and habitat destruction.

Under the proposal, Fish and Wildlife would set aside 1.8 million acres spanning 16 mountain counties as critical habitat for the species.

When land is designated as critical habitat for an endangered or threatened species, anyone interested in developing or using that land is required to avoid or mitigate impacts to the habitat.

Most of the designated area is federal land, and much of it is already officially designated as wilderness area, though there are land uses in the high country that include grazing.

The public comment period officially opened today and continues through June 24.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Robert Moler said on Wednesday that the agency makes these determinations based on scientific findings. While there will be an economic analysis on the impacts of the proposal, Fish and Wildlife is looking for scientific information more than arguments for or against the proposal.

The process of establishing legal protections for animals usually takes about a year.

"We want to get a variety of information from the public so when we do get a final determination, it's using the best scientific information," he said.

The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog is between 1.5 and 3.25 inches long and is usually a mix of brown and yellow coloring. The proposal would set aside swaths of land in eastern Tuolumne and Calaveras counties and northwestern Alpine County.

The Yosemite toad is smaller than 3 inches in length, and the potentially critical habitat includes eastern Tuolumne County and central Alpine County.

The Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center is among the organizations that have rallied behind the two species. According to CSERC and Fish and Wildlife, the species have seen reductions because of predators, habitat degradation and climate change.

John Buckley, CSERC's executive director, said that both fish stocking and livestock grazing in some cases in the high Sierra have contributed to the species' declines, and also attributed the issue to non-native fungus and climate change.

Buckley compared the frog and toad species in the Sierra to a canary in a coal mine, meaning that they are early indicators for problematic environmental trends in the region.

He also pointed out that the Yosemite toad is distinctly native to this region, as it is not really found beyond the Sierra and Stanislaus national forests. And he said because these animals are found outside of lands that are sought for development purposes, protecting them can be a "win-win" for all parties.

"Those are needy species that have declined over a huge portion of their native habitat," Buckley said.

Not all are thrilled about the proposal, however. The Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment, also known as TuCARE, advocates regularly for logging, mining and agriculture in the Central Sierra Nevada region,

TuCARE spokeswoman Melinda Fleming on Wednesday told The Union Democrat that the organization opposes the designation for both species because restrictions related to the proposal would harm the economy.

"The disgraceful track record on recovery and subsequent delisting of species speaks volumes about an agency that has very little to do with actual specie and environmental protection, but instead uses its might to intimidate and harass business and threaten economic survival of human interests," Fleming said.