Mississippi gopher frog could hop into St. Tammany
Edward Poitevent just doesn't get it. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate a considerable chunk of land his family owns in eastern St. Tammany Parish as critical habitat for the Mississippi gopher frog, an endangered species of which only 100 adult frogs remain.
Yet, none of them live in St. Tammany Parish. In fact, no one has seen a gopher frog in the wild in Louisiana since 1967.
And that's part of what Poitevent -- whose family is the largest landowner in St. Tammany -- finds so confounding.
If the federal government decides to designate his property -- nearly 1,650 acres of timberland along Louisiana 36 north of Slidell -- as a home for the gopher frog, he would have to jump through extra regulatory hoops when it comes time to develop the land.
Officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service said last week that those hurdles would not keep Poitevent from developing his land as he sees fit. Poitevent disagrees, suggesting that the designation would severely curtail his use of his land and result in a potential loss of income as high as $36 million, and that the proposed rule does not take an economic analysis that the service conducted into consideration.
The federal government has not offered to pay Poitevent in exchange for the designation. But officials at Fish and Wildlife said the designation will have no effect on Poitevent's plan to develop the land. And, they said any further action, such as creating and maintaining the habitat, and moving the frogs there, would be voluntary on Poitevent's part and come at no expense to him.
The designation simply would mean that the Fish and Wildlife Service has found new and proper places for the frog to live -- following a recent agreement that requires an expanded habitat for the endangered species. It doesn't mean that frogs take over the land.
A stocky, wart-covered frog
The Mississippi gopher frog is stocky, is about three inches long, and ranges in color from black to brown or gray, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is covered with dark spots and warts.
Though the gopher frog once lived throughout the area between the Mississippi River in Louisiana and the Mobile River in Alabama, the only frogs known to exist today are located in Harrison County, Miss., near Saucier, about 20 miles north of Gulfport.
That habitat is threatened by natural processes, such as genetic isolation, floods and drought, as well as by planned residential development and highway expansion, and a proposed reservoir, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to find new critical habitat for the endangered frog, leading biologists to look to the lands where the frog previously was known to exist.
Last sighting was in 1965
The last time anyone saw a gopher frog in St. Tammany was in 1965, in one of several connecting ponds on the Poitevent tract south of Louisiana 36, said Linda LaClaire, lead biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Jackson, Miss. She visited the site earlier this year and was surprised to find the ponds still in place and continuing to provide the very specific hydrological environment that the Mississippi gopher frogs need to live and breed.
In addition to the Poitevent land, the service would like to designate 5,300 acres in southern Mississippi as new critical habitat for the gopher frog, though more than half of the land, including locations within the DeSoto National Forest, already is owned by the federal government.
Cary Norquist, assistant field supervisor with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Jackson, said the biologists are required to look at both occupied and unoccupied lands under the Endangered Species Act. Whether a landowner is agreeable is not part of the decision-making process, she said.
Poitevent said he thinks the entire designation process is a waste: Why should the government spend time and money on studies and on drafting proposals if he has no intention of making life comfortable for gopher frogs on his property?
The family business
William James Poitevent established the family business -- a lumber mill -- in Pearlington, Miss., before the Civil War, and his son, John, continued to grow the mill through the early 20th century, eventually acquiring 80,000 acres in Hancock County, Miss., and on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
John Poitevent's son, Eads Poitevent, shuttered the operation in Pearlington and opened a new, larger mill in Lewisburg, along the lake near Mandeville, in 1913. The mill closed during the Great Depression, and after World War II, the next generation of Poitevents, including Edward Poitevent's father and uncle, left St. Tammany Parish and made New Orleans their home.
Having left the lumber business, the family decided in 1953 to execute a long-term timber lease, with that lease belonging since the mid-1990s to Weyerhaeuser Co., based in Washington state. After selling and donating various parcels through the years, including 20,000 acres for the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, the Poitevent family now owns roughly 45,000 acres, all in St. Tammany Parish.
Much of the remaining Poitevent land sits dead-center in the parish, where officials believe the greatest growth is poised to occur. And cutting through the center of the parish like a knife: Louisiana 36, which runs east-west between Covington and Hickory, or nearly the parish's entire length.
The land in question -- that which the Fish and Wildlife Service is keen to designate for the gopher frog -- straddles Louisiana 36 about two miles west of Hickory. Though not an immediate hotspot for development, the parish has zoned the land within and adjacent to the proposed critical habitat for residential development and for a traditional neighborhood development, which typically includes homes, businesses, schools and other amenities.
And in the past decade, development has become more prevalent in the central part of one of the state's fastest growing parishes, with a new high school on Louisiana 1088 south of LA 36, two new distribution centers -- one open and another under construction -- along Interstate 59 in Pearl River, and the proposed -- though stalled -- University Square project on Louisiana 434 between Louisiana 36 and Interstate 12.
"Civilization is lapping at the shores of this land," Poitevent said. "And given our experience with Katrina, we know that the higher shores are the place to be."
The Wildlife and Fisheries Service is accepting public comment on the plan through Nov. 28, then LaClaire said she will make the recommendation that she thinks is best for the conservation and recovery of the frog. The secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior will make the final call on the matter, with any new rule appearing in the Federal Register by June, she said.
However, the designation of a critical habitat doesn't actually mean that the frogs will once again populate the Poitevent tract. It is still Poitevent's land, and he has the ultimate say-so about what happens next, LaClaire said.
For instance, Poitevent would have to allow the Wildlife and Fisheries Service to plant the longleaf pine that helps makes up the gopher frog's habitat and to schedule burns at the site to maintain an open canopy, she said. Then and only then would the service move the frogs to the tract and execute a long-term management agreement assuming responsibility for maintaining the habitat.
But that's not likely to happen. As it stands now, Poitevent believes the act of simply designating his land as critical habitat for the gopher frog will trigger a "no-soil disturbance" rule that will prevent him from developing some or all of the nearly 1,650 acres in the future.
Norquist said that's simply not true, adding that it's a common misperception that a landowner will no longer be able to touch his land once the designation is in place. However, she said that having the designation would require Poitevent to go through an extra step during the development process should the project require a federal permit, such as a permit to fill wetlands, or involve the use of federal funding.
"To come onto land where the species doesn't exist and where the habitat is long gone is nonsensical," Poitevent said, noting that the longleaf pine that once stood on the site was cut decades ago.
Poitevent has enlisted officials at nearly every level to help stop the Fish and Wildlife service from designating his land as new habitat for the gopher frog. Sen. David Vitter has posed questions to the service on his behalf, and the St. Tammany Parish Council passed a resolution outlining why it thinks the designation would be detrimental to the future of development on the north shore.
A lawyer by trade, Poitevent has spent considerable time and effort drafting comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service and hopes it will make a difference as the matter makes its way up the chain of command. Mike Wolff, a spokesman for lease-holder Weyerhaeuser, said the company knows about the proposal, is reviewing it and also expects to file comments with the service by the comment deadline.
Christine Harvey can be reached at email@example.com or 985.645.2853.
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