Researcher Jaime Smith holds a dusky gopher frog in the De Soto National Forest. (Emily Kask/For The Washington Post)
Rana sevosa — spotted, big eyes, about three inches long and with a mating call that has been compared to a human’s snore — is one of the most endangered amphibians in the world.
The fate of the dusky gopher frog will be the first order of business for the Supreme Court as it opens its new term Monday, one member short and at the center of a national debate over the man nominated to fill that position, Brett M. Kavanaugh. While that battle rages, the justices will focus on a frog.
Weyerhaeuser Company v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tests how far the federal government may go to designate private land as a future habitat for an endangered species — when the creature itself does not live on the land in question, and could not, without modification, and perhaps never will.
The frog, once thought to be extinct, lives in the wild exclusively here in Mississippi, in the De Soto National Forest. Its potential new home is more than 50 miles away, across the Pearl River in Louisiana, where the frog once lived but has not been seen since the 1960s.
The government says to think of Unit 1 [the land in Louisiana] as an insurance policy, required by the Endangered Species Act. Once a species has been identified as endangered, the government is required to identify critical habitat for the creatures, and the law specifically envisions both land that is currently occupied by the species, and not.
Unoccupied land may be deemed critical only when the government determines it is “essential for the conservation of the species.” The act defines “conservation” to include not just survival, but restoration of the population, and the frog used to live in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
A panel of experts said Unit 1 met the law’s demands, mostly because it contains something essential to the frog’s breeding habits: “ephemeral ponds.” It is a poetic appellation for low areas that fill with water at certain times of the year and then dry out. Such ponds are unable to sustain fish, which would eat the frog’s eggs.
‘They’re great little animals’: The dusky gopher frog goes before the Supreme Court