Two environmental groups are threatening legal action against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) and several irrigation districts (Districts) regarding potential harm to the Oregon spotted frog and its habitat in the Deschutes Basin. The Center for Biological Diversity and WaterWatch of Oregon filed separate 60-day Notices of Intent, setting forth their intentions to sue Reclamation for alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act. WaterWatch’s Notice also targets Central Oregon Irrigation District, North Unit Irrigation District, and Tumalo Irrigation District. The environmental groups are calling for Reclamation and the Districts to change operations at three reservoirs, including Crane Prairie, Wickiup, and Crescent Lake, to protect this species and its habitat.
Any changes to how water is stored or released by Reclamation and the Districts at these reservoirs may affect hundreds of family farms and ranches served by the Districts. Altered operations may also reduce water supplies for local parks, recreation on the Deschutes River and in the reservoirs, and even other fish and wildlife species in the Deschutes and other rivers. For example, releasing water in the winter for Oregon spotted frog may result in less water available for steelhead and red band trout in the summer. Local businesses in the cities of Bend, Redmond, Madras, and Tumalo may also be affected by the threatened litigation.
The environmental groups are demanding that Reclamation enter into a formal “consultation” with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). In the consultation, the two federal agencies would evaluate whether Reclamation’s operations of Crane Prairie and Wickiup are in fact harmful to the frog, and if so, to then identify steps to avoid or mitigate that harm. We also anticipate that the environmental groups will demand that Reclamation and the Districts implement several interim measures such as higher winter releases from the reservoirs into the Deschutes River to improve downstream habitat.
These legal threats may compromise meaningful steps to improve habitat for Oregon spotted frog and other fish and wildlife species. For several years, the three irrigation districts along with five others, and the City of Prineville, have been developing the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (Deschutes HCP). This comprehensive plan is intended to provide clear, specific habitat restoration steps for Oregon spotted frog, steelhead, bull trout, and other species in the Deschutes Basin. Over 20 different stakeholders have participated in this effort, including the Deschutes River Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and state and federal agencies. The Districts, and their patrons, have invested millions of dollars in this plan, which may be delayed due to the pending litigation.
Since 2012, the Districts have been working with the Service to evaluate the Oregon spotted frog and its needs, and to also identify and implement conservation measures to improve its habitat. Irrigation diversions that will be covered by the Deschutes Basin HCP have relatively negligible effects on frogs. For example, all but two of the eight irrigation districts’ diversions are downstream of or beyond the species’ current range. The Districts have taken several steps to benefit frogs, including:
- The Oregon Spotted Frog Technical Group was formed in mid-2014 and has met regularly to explore conservation measures for this species. The Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Water Resources Department, and other interested Deschutes Basin stakeholders participate in this group.
- Tumalo and Central Oregon irrigation districts initiated a pilot study in early 2015 to determine the benefits of increasing winter and spring releases from Crescent Lake to improve frog-breeding success in Crescent Creek and the Little Deschutes River. The test release of additional water from Crescent Lake, which began in November 2014 and was increased (to 30 cubic feet per second (cfs)) in February 2015, is continuing. In midAugust, 124 cfs was being released from Crescent Lake for irrigation.
- Central Oregon Irrigation District voluntarily released water from Crane Prairie this year to counteract unusually low natural flows in the Deschutes River and improve breeding conditions for Oregon spotted frogs.
- A pilot program is underway in the Ryan Ranch area to determine the feasibility of creating Oregon spotted frog habitat in this meadow. If the pilot program is successful, a long-term program could be implemented through the Deschutes Basin HCP.
The Service listed the Oregon spotted frog as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act on August 29, 2014. The species is present in the Upper Deschutes Basin, in and upstream of Bend. The Upper Deschutes Sub-basin and the Little Deschutes Sub-basin contain the two largest known populations of Oregon spotted frog anywhere in the species’ range. The Service proposed the designation of roughly 22,600 acres of wetland, riverine, and reservoir habitat in the Upper Deschutes as “critical habitat”—areas which are believed to be essential to sustain and recover the species. In the Upper Deschutes, frogs are present within Crane Prairie and Wickiup, and in riverine wetlands downstream from these reservoirs and Crescent Lake. For additional information on the Oregon spotted frog, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website: http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/articles.cfm?id=149489458