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Written into American folklore by Mark Twain for its leaping prowess, the California red-legged frog is now officially protected by Uncle Sam.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended a yearlong drought of action to protect species by listing as "threatened" the frogs that Twain said "could get over more ground at one straddle than any animal of his breed."The Monday decision under the Endangered Species Act brought guarded praise from environmentalists and criticism from some farm groups. It also prompted assurances from the Clinton administration - wary of the potential fallout in a politically important state - that it would take all steps possible to minimize the economic impact.

Action to safeguard the frog and its habitat primarily along coastal areas of central California had been held up for more than a year as Congress imposed a moratorium in early 1995 against any further endangered species listings. The listing ban was lifted last month.

The law designed to protect plants and animals that are in danger of disappearing has been under intense attack from con-ser-vative Republican members of Congress, who argue it is overly intrusive on property owners.

Two years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the frog as endangered. But on Monday it declared it "threatened" - affording it less protection and making it easier to control economic impact.

The agency said recent surveys suggested that the frogs were more numerous than previously believed and warranted less concern.

Mollie Beattie, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the "threatened" designation "offers a great deal of flexibility" and she hoped to "balance conservation with economic activities."

There has been concern that the listing might interfere with the construction of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir project in central California, as well as some highway construction and agricultural activities.