A small population of California red-legged frogs has been found on a privately owned cattle ranch in western Calaveras County. The rancher's children - Beau, 6, and Haylie, 10 - discovered the frogs while playing at a water hole on the ranch.

"When the first frog was discovered, we tried as a family to figure out what it was," said their mother, Norma. "The kids narrowed it down to a couple of choices."

The family, wary of trespassers, asked that their last name not be used and the specific location not be identified.

Dr. Robert Stack Arnold of the Murphys-based Jumping Frog Research Institute was the first biologist to specifically identify the unknown frogs as red-legged when the family invited him to their ranch earlier this fall. His identification was confirmed by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Don Hankins of Sacramento.

According to Stack, the children's discovery is significant because it is the first documented sighting of a red-legged frog in Calaveras County since a reported find near Highway 49 in 1969.

"We want to be good stewards to the only known population of red-legged frog in the county," said rancher Danny, "but we also want to balance that with the needs of our cattle."

Calaveras County Supervisor Lucy Thein said she is "thrilled" with the news of the discovery, saying, "It is my hope that we can make this news something very positive for the county, the family, and of course, the frog."

"The family is doing a wonderful thing, inviting a team of biologists to recommend good stewardship practices for the frog, while maintaining the economic viability of their ranch," Stack said. "It is our responsibility as scientists and representatives of governmental agencies to respect the family's wishes as we all try to move forward in doing right by Mark Twain's beloved frog."

Scientists and many historians consider the California red-legged frog to be the critter on which Twain's "Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County" is based. Bullfrogs were not introduced into California until the 1890s, whereas the red-legged species was the largest native frog in the Angels Camp area at the time Twain heard the story at the Angels Hotel in 1865. Whether the story is true or not, the central character had to have red legs, say those who study frogs.

At this time, the family, the frog institute and government agencies do not wish to identify the specific location of the ranch or divulge the family's last name. They want to discourage visitation from potential sightseers so as to protect the frog and its sensitive habitat.

"All the frogs are found on private property, and efforts to observe them would involve crossing fences and trespassing on private property," Stack said. "I think most people will respect what we're trying to do out here.

When asked if he sees potential conflicts between running his cattle and saving the red-legged frog, Danny was quick to respond, "Cows have grazed this ranch for 150 years. They must get along with the frog or the frogs wouldn't still be here."

Hankins said there are native populations of red-legged frogs on working cattle ranches in the East Bay and Marin County, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is looking forward to working with the family and county in a cooperative manner to achieve the same thing here.

Dr. Eric Thomas, associate professor of biology at the University of Pacific in Stockton, is among the group of scientists who will offer recommendations on how to best balance a rancher's need to make a living with his desire to be a good steward of his land.

"Ranches are obviously a vital part of our food production industry,"said Thomas. "But they also can provide much-needed open space and a safe habitat for frogs and other wildlife, when managed properly."

The children are united in their thoughts on having red-legged frogs on their property.

When asked if he wanted to say anything to the public, Beau pleaded, "Please help us save our frogs."

"Haylie added, "It makes our ranch more special. The frogs are really cool."

Contact Wayland Ezell at ezell@caltel.com

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