Ranching for an Endangered Species

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:08/25/2011

Continuing our look at the Chilton Ranch in Arizona, and what the Chiltons are doing for wildlife.

Even after the ups and downs at the hands of wildlife agencies and advocates that Jim Chilton has gone through, he still dug in and studied the next endangered species listing with huge potential to affect his livelihood:  the Chiricahua Leopard Frog.  “I came to believe that that listing was valid,” he tells me.  

“The frogs were in desperate condition, verging on extinction.  So I decided I would try to do something for the frog.  I worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Arizona Department of Game & Fish, where my wife has also served as Commissioner.   

“I had 21,200 acres surveyed, but we found no Chiricahua Leopard Frogs.  So I entered into a Safe Harbor agreement with Arizona Game and Fish and the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  

“I also convinced the Forest Service to consult with the Fish & Wildlife Service.  Why?  If I had succeeded in bringing back or successfully raising the frogs on my private or leased state land, and they had hopped over to the national forest, then the U.S. Forest Service would likely decrease the number of cattle I could graze or would fence off my waters on the Forest lease.  The consultation agreement gave me the ability to say ‘now I want to help the frog.’”

The Chiricahua Leopard Frog

In 2009, Jim built - at his own expense - a $7000 refugium for the frogs on his property.  “It’s simply a big hole about 60 feet long and 25 feet wide, with a graded water depth of a few inches to 5 feet deep.  I had a swimming pool company line it with a special concrete to ensure no cracking and leaking.  I built a water line to the refugium, and a float valve ensures the water always stays at the same level.  

“One night about a year after we finished construction of the pond, I got a call from the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  They said, ‘We have a real problem.  We’ve got a stock pond on the west side of the valley that’s drying up, and it has Chiricahua frogs.  Can we bring them to your refugium?‘  So at 11:00 at night they introduced 60 Chiricahua Leopard Frogs onto my property.”  

That was two years ago, and the frogs seem to be doing well.  Jim hopes to someday take the frogs and start establishing them in his stock ponds on private land and state school trust lands.

One of the major limiting factors on the frogs is predation by bullfrogs.  Jim says that about 70 years ago the Arizona Game & Fish Department thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice for hunters and fishermen to be able to hunt Midwest bullfrogs,’ so they planted them in riparian areas.  Over time they’ve wreaked havoc on native frog populations.  

That is why Jim’s refugium is built as a haven from predation, with two concentric tin walls buried into the ground and standing five feet high so that bullfrogs can’t get in.  “There’s also a chicken wire roof to keep out wading birds and solar lights to attract bugs for the frogs,” Jim concludes.  “I feel very good about this and a number of other people on the Malpais and in other places are doing positive things for the frogs in the true spirit of helping truly endangered species.”  

Next up: in the battle between this rancher and an advocacy group, who wears the white hat?