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Toad Territory : Campsites to Be Closed in Effort to Save Wildlife

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Trying to balance the interests of ecological preservation and avid campers, federal officials are restricting access to two popular campgrounds in Los Padres National Forest, just in time for the busy Memorial Day weekend.

With a record 45,000 visitors to the Rose Valley last year, wildlife biologists have grown concerned about the survival of native toads, frogs, turtles and snakes that live along Sespe Creek.

For the first time beginning Friday, a dozen of the 30 campsites at Lion Camp next to a favorite riverbed breeding ground of the arroyo toad will be closed in an effort to limit human activity in the animals’ habitat.

And for the second year in a row, forest rangers will shut down the final stretch of road leading to Beaver Camp, located on the south end of Rose Valley. Hundreds of squashed toads have been counted in the roadway.

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Campers and other visitors will have to walk the final 200 feet of roadway to reach the 12 campsites at Beaver Camp.

At the other end of the Sespe Wilderness Area, the 42-campsite Blue Point campground remains closed because of ongoing repairs to a road damaged by a rockslide.

Other species-sensitive areas along the Sespe will remain open, but rangers will post signs asking campers to stay away.

“We can’t risk losing these species,” said George Garcia, a biologist with the U. S. Forest Service’s Ojai Ranger Station, which regulates the campgrounds. “If we don’t do something now, in a few years there’s not going to be much left to enjoy.”

Last year, unwitting campers devastated the baby arroyo toad population, said Sam Sweet, a biologist at UC Santa Barbara who is considered to be the world’s leading expert on the arroyo toad.

Swimmers splashing along the banks of the Sespe Creek upset all 15 toad spawning beds, killing most of the 45,000 eggs Sweet was tracking. Many of the toads that survived ended up being run over by campers’ cars on nearby roads, Sweet said.

Meanwhile, pet-seeking children carried off most of the valley’s tea-cup-sized Western pond turtles and many of its two-striped garter snakes. The red-legged frog, once a common sight along the banks of the Sespe, has not been seen for years, Sweet said.

All four are being considered for threatened or endangered species status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Charlie Robinson, a Forest Service recreation officer. If that happens, the campgrounds may be permanently closed in accordance with the Endangered Species Act, a federal law that protects endangered animals and their habitats, Robinson said.

“People might not be too happy when they see the campgrounds closed now,” Robinson said. “But we’re hoping they’ll understand that this is the only way we’re going to be able to keep these grounds open at all.”

Frequent campers Ernie and Linda Espinoza of Temple City said they support the closure.

“We’ve been here for two days and we’ve spent a lot of our time picking up trash,” Ernie Espinoza said as his 1-year-old daughter Allison dipped her toes in the Sespe. “If things don’t change, animals aren’t the only ones who aren’t going to want to be here.”

“We’re very respectful of the environment,” Linda Espinoza said. “That’s why we come, to show our kids what it’s like outside of the city.”

When her 5-year-old captured a cupful of tadpoles, Linda Espinoza made her let them go. “We didn’t want to hurt them,” she said.

But just the act of capturing the tadpoles is disruptive, Garcia said. “It really stresses them out,” he said. “People don’t realize that catching tadpoles can limit their oxygen and kill them.”

Humans aren’t the only ones harming native animals, Garcia said. Catfish and bullfrogs, not native to California but now abundant in Los Padres National Forest, feed on the eggs of their less-hearty neighbors. “They are big-mouthed, opportunistic feeders,” he said. “They’ll eat anything smaller than they are.”

Forest officials are hoping the habits of humans will be somewhat easier to control. The maximum penalty for violating a Forest Service order is $1,000 or six months in jail, Robinson said.

But with only two rangers patrolling the 13,000-acre valley campground area during the day, and no patrol between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., compliance will be largely voluntary, Robinson said. “We’re counting on people to cooperate.”

Closing Campsites Twelve campsites in Lion Camp and a 200-foot stretch of road at Beaver Camp will be temporarily closed in an effort by Los Padres National Forest officials to protect semsotove wildlife species.


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