Points North: Neither Frogs Nor Sunsets Should Be Taken for Granted

Northern Leopard Frog
Northern Leopard Frog

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced Endangered Species Act protection is not warranted for the northern leopard frog in 19 states, including Minnesota. The decision was based on a 2006 petition to protect leopard frogs in the western U.S., where their numbers have greatly declined. Although testing showed some genetic differences among northern leopard frog populations across their range, the Service concluded that a frog is a frog. Northern leopard frogs remain common enough in the eastern U.S. to preclude Endangered Species protection.

Be that as it may, the fact the Service even considered Endangered Species protection for northern leopard frogs ought to be big news, because they are (or were) one of the most common amphibians in the northern U.S. A medium-sized green or brown frog with black spots, the leopard frog is likely to be seen near water or grassy areas. They are also the frogs commonly used for dissection in high school biology classes.

It’s been more years than I can count since I’ve last seen a leopard frog. Perhaps this is because I spend most of my time in the North Shore’s boreal forest, but I don’t think so. When I was a kid, we frequently saw leopard frogs near North Shore lakes and streams. Back then, the frogs were so abundant we just took them for granted. Catching leopard frogs was just part of being a boy. Sometimes, we caught them just to catch them. One summer, we caught them to feed to a previously captured painted turtle, which was housed in an old washtub. Curious about the taste of frog legs, we even caught them to eat.

Forty years ago, you’d see leopard frogs everywhere. I recall walking along the shallow shoreline of a small lake north of Two Harbors as dozens of frogs hopped out of the vegetation to seek cover in the water. They were ever-present along the brook trout creeks and ponds where my friends and I went fishing. Once, in preparation for a bass-fishing excursion, my father and I caught frogs for bait from a backwater of the St. Louis River just downstream from Fond du Lac. Some of the frogs we saw were two or three times the size of the average leopard frog. Perhaps they were the elders of the frog clan.

The disappearance of leopard frogs occurred about the time I grew from being a boy interested in frogs into a juvenile interested in other things. Back then, officials said the frogs were decimated by a disease called red leg. But the leopard frog population never recovered to its former abundance. Years passed before we learned amphibian populations were declining worldwide. Later, we learned about the growing incidence of frog deformities and the possible link to chemical residues in the environment.

We once took the abundance of frogs for granted. Now we take for granted that amphibians, among the most ancient creatures on the planet, appear doomed to dwindle away. That northern leopard frogs were considered for Endangered Species Act protection doesn’t even make the news, even though the very idea of them becoming endangered was unthinkable 40 years ago.

The leopard frog’s fate taught me a harsh lesson in modern reality. Based on what I saw happen to frogs, I’ve learned never to take anything in the natural world for granted. What is here today may be gone tomorrow.

This morning I was reminiscing with someone about my late father’s Minnesota moose hunt in 2000—just 11 years ago. Back then, there were so many moose north of Hovland we planned to not shoot the first moose we encountered, but to hold out for a large bull. In two days of hunting we saw four bulls and Dad shot a young bull that was, for him, the trophy of a lifetime. I used to take it for granted to see moose just about every time I was out and about on back roads or walking in the woods. That was then.

Neither leopard frogs nor bull moose may entirely disappear from Minnesota, but I wonder if we’ve learned anything from their population declines. It is fair to say most Minnesotans are either oblivious or vaguely aware of the fates of frogs and moose. If anything, an abundance of wildlife is more likely to be perceived as a nuisance to humans than appreciated as a wonder of Nature.

An example of our lack of appreciation is our collective attitude regarding the Canada goose. Back when leopard frogs were abundant in Minnesota, Canada geese were not. Minnesota nesting populations were nearly eradicated during the era of settlement and market hunting. For decades, the only geese we saw in Minnesota were migrants on their way to and from the northern breeding grounds. Back then, the cries of a high-flying flock were sounds to be relished. The famed ecologist Aldo Leopold called it “goose music.” Today, successful wildlife management programs have restored nesting geese to our state and they are commonplace in town and country. But for many Minnesotans, what was once music has become the noise of a nuisance bird that poops on lawns and feeds in farm fields.

Leopold once wrote: “If, then, we can live without goose music, we may as well do away with the stars, or sunsets, or Iliads. But the point is we would be fools to do away with any of them.” Today we live in a world where many people cannot see the stars or the sunset and likely haven’t heard of Homer’s Iliad, much less read it. Sadly, I guess this is just one more example of why what is good in this world cannot be taken for granted.

Airdate: October 14, 2011

Photo courtesy of Andy via Flickr.

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