By Martin Richards

Recent articles in the Bulletin may have you asking: What is all the fuss with the spotted frog?

The Oregon spotted frog is native to the Pacific Northwest, but reduction in populations prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as threatened in 2014. The largest remaining frog populations are in the Upper Deschutes River, which also happens to be where we get the irrigation water that allowed Central Oregon to begin developing a century ago.

Today, irrigated agriculture is the heart of the Central Oregon landscape, and many families and communities still rely on access to water for their livelihood and economic survival.

Two environmental groups — the Center for Biological Diversity and WaterWatch of Oregon — have filed lawsuits that claim to aim at protecting habitat for the spotted frog. Unfortunately, those lawsuits ignore over a decade of work on water conservation and habitat preservation in the Deschutes basin. Many families are now spending the winter wondering if our stewardship efforts have been in vain and if our farms, ranches and way of life can continue to exist with the looming threat these lawsuits pose.

Long before the spotted frog was listed under the Endangered Species Act, irrigation districts and local farmers and ranchers began working with government agencies, environmental groups, the confederated tribes and many other local stakeholders to understand the environmental challenges facing the Deschutes basin and identify solutions to improve water management. These collaborative efforts have been ongoing for more than a decade and have led to large, meaningful progress. Millions of dollars have been invested in conservation projects to save water. More projects are planned and the irrigation districts are helping to lead the most comprehensive studies of the ecology of the Deschutes basin as well as its cultural, recreational and economic significance.

The lawsuits ignore these efforts, fail to consider community and economic impacts, and threaten to derail the progress we’ve made. In press releases, the Center for Biological Diversity makes it sound as if no harm will come to the basin and the people who live here.

Their intentions may sound good, but you should be asking: Have they considered how much water we can forfeit before farms and ranches are no longer viable? What about the impact to agriculture businesses and their employees? Have they considered how much schools and community programs in rural towns depend on support from the agriculture industry? Did they take into account that farms and ranches are still recovering from two years of drought?

We are already feeling the impact of the lawsuits. Now is the time when farmers and ranchers need to decide what crops to plant, purchase inputs for the coming season and invest in improvements to our businesses. The uncertainty and fear of losing water is stalling regular farming practices, and the negative effect is beginning to ripple through the economy and the workforce.

I believe the lawsuits will prove to be not only harmful to central Oregon communities, but also counterproductive. If environmental groups genuinely want to preserve habitat for the spotted frog, then they would engage in the efforts underway rather than rushing to sue. They would contribute their support, expertise and financial resources to the progress we have already made to conserve water and protect species.

The problem is larger than just the spotted frog lawsuits. The Endangered Species Act is being exploited by outside groups to try to force their solutions on local problems. Local stakeholders understand the value of our resources and know firsthand the negative impact regulatory and legal overreach can have on our communities. Many communities and families throughout the Pacific Northwest know the pain and may never fully recover from the damage caused by past abuse of the Endangered Species Act that ignores the human element.

My hope is that the public and our elected officials will urge the Center for Biological Diversity and WaterWatch of Oregon to acknowledge the work we’ve done and help us find a solution that protects wildlife without endangering the farms and ranches that are the heart of Central Oregon.

— Martin Richards lives in Madras.