Division of Wildlife Resources herpetologist Dave Ross just completed a report indicating the Wasatch Front population of spotted frogs was fragmented and well on its way toward extinction.
His reward from the division? His job was eliminated."Was it a coincidence? I don't know. I was told I was being fired due to politics and budget cuts, rather than job performance," Ross said. "I got the feeling politics played a main role."
Ross, the only full-time herpetologist employed by the division, and other wildlife advocates throughout the state suspect the "politics" in this case involved the spotted frog, a candidate for listing as a threatened or endangered species, and the desert tortoise, already an endangered species.
The Endangered Species Act has come under increasing fire in Utah from politicians and land developers who see endangered animals as obstacles to economic growth. In the St. George area, federal laws protecting desert tortoise habitat has severely hampered new development.
If the spotted frog is listed as threatened or endangered, development in certain areas of the Wasatch Front could be similarly hampered.
Division of Wildlife Resources biologists traditionally work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor sensitive plant and animal species and their habitats.
"It's really unfortunate," said Bob Williams, state director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Utah, of the firing. "We rely so much on DWR biologists to give us on-the-ground decisions on herp animals, and without that resource it will be more difficult to make good decisions."
Williams says the elimination of the position is further indication that the DWR is shifting its emphasis exclusively to game species, such as fish, deer and elk, that bring in license revenue to the state. "It would appear they don't have much concern for snakes or frogs or other herps that don't bring in the money (to the division)," he said.
DWR Director Tim Provan says the reason for the elimination of the position is simple: The herpetology position was funded with general-fund monies and the Legislature eliminated almost every penny of the division's general-fund monies.
"I had to cut $1.3 million," Provan said. "That meant cutting 17 positions and reducing our acquisition program by $500,000. As much as I wanted to keep the herpetology position, I could not fund it with license revenues from hunters and anglers. I just wasn't comfortable doing that."
George Nickas, assistant coordinator of the Utah Wilderness Association, also decried the division's action.
"Amphibians are the most threatened group of species on the planet right now, and their populations are in serious trouble in many places," he said. "It's one reason why they deserve a lot more attention than they are getting, and why (DWR) should not be firing those folks."
"It's a real step backward," agreed one DWR biologist. "We were told the reason for the firing was that some people just didn't think we should have anyone caring for snakes and lizards and stuff like that."
"You can't print what I really think," said said another biologist.
While Ross' position has been eliminated, Provan says Ross has not been fired. Instead, he has been offered his choice of three other jobs within the division.
"I am not interested in diminishing the (herpetology) program within the division," Provan said. "We have two region biologists who are very qualified herpetologists and do an exemplary job."
If Ross accepts a position within the division, he would not continue his herpetology studies.
Provan admits the elimination of the position in the midst of political controversy over desert tortoises and spotted frogs will not look good to Utah's environmental community.
"I can see how it must look to them, but in all honesty it had nothing to do with my decision," he said. "I no longer have the general funds to pay for that position."
Nickas criticized the way the division prioritized positions, noting the division has responsibility to manage and protect about 650 different animal species but spends almost all of its money managing a couple dozen species for hunters and anglers.
"We have a fundamental concern with the way wildlife is being managed in this state," Nickas said.
Most wildlife advocates agree the Legislature's action in cutting $1.3 million from the division was certainly politically motivated. During the 1993 session, the division was the target of frequent attacks by lawmakers upset over the division's handling of wildlife issues, including endangered species.
Lawmakers made it unmistakably clear they do not want the division spending money on non-game species.