What to do with 2,000 slightly used frogs?
For years, organizers of the Calaveras County Fair and Frog Jumping Jubilee urged participants to carefully put the frogs back where they got them after the annual contest.
Last summer, they found out the practice is illegal in California.
It's not against the law to catch the bullfrogs -- but it is illegal to put them back, said Ed Pert, the California Department of Fish and Game's fisheries programs chief. Violators could face a $5,000 fine and a year in jail.
The once-captured frogs could spread disease or alter ecosystems if the common but nonnative frogs are freed in new locations, he said. Since their introduction in 1896, the Eastern bullfrogs have largely driven out California's native frogs.
Department officials are scrambling to come up with an alternative before next May's contest. They plan an internal brainstorming session this month, before they open the discussion to contest organizers, environmentalists and others.
"We don't want to go and bust these contest participants because they're not trying to do anything horribly wrong; they're trying to do the right thing," Pert said. "We don't want to abolish the contest; we certainly understand the value of it."
Fairgrounds manager Warren "Buck" King worries that the cleanest way to ensure the frogs aren't reintroduced to the environment is to kill them after the contest.
That would likely kill the contest itself, King said.
The contest already faces periodic protests from animal rights groups, most recently one last spring led by a former Miss Calaveras County contestant who participated herself 14 years ago.
Contest organizers adopted a "frog welfare policy" in 1997, requiring humane capture, care and release of the frogs, and requiring the banning of participants who knowingly violate the policy or otherwise abuse frogs. No drugs or probes may be used to spur any frog, King said.
Most participants bring their own contestants, but organizers catch about 300 frogs to rent during the contest. The rental frogs, and any others that appear injured, overheated or exhausted, are kept in a "Frog Condo" under the main stage.
Still, King said, the way to make a frog want to jump is to keep it in a container too small to allow jumping until the contest begins. He said captured bullfrogs typically won't eat, so they must be force-fed hamburger.
But King said he is proud of the contest's low mortality rate, and neither he nor Pert wants to euthanize the frogs.
"I'm hoping there are more creative solutions than that," Pert said.