California Red-Legged Frogs and Western Pond Turtles to be Restored in Yosemite National Park

Zoo employee showing turtle to children
Western Pond Turtle and Children

San Francisco Zoo and Marianne Hale

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News Release Date: May 26, 2016

Cooperative Effort by the National Park Service, San Francisco Zoo & Gardens, Yosemite Conservancy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish & Wildlife, and NatureBridge Includes a New Permanent Breeding Center at the Zoo

The federally threatened California red-legged frog has not been seen in the Yosemite National Park in a half century. The Western pond turtle has been absent from Yosemite Valley for the same time period, but is still found in the park’s Hetch Hetchy area. Both species will be reintroduced to suitable lake, river or meadow habitats in Yosemite Valley starting in 2016. Over the next three years, the goal is to reintroduce 4,000 California red-legged frog tadpoles and 500 adult frogs. Over the next eight years, one hundred adult Western pond turtles will be reintroduced to establish self-sustaining breeding populations. The first ten turtles released this June will be fitted with radio-transmitters to track and identify preferred habitats in Yosemite Valley.

The permanent frog and turtle breeding facility, known as the San Francisco Zoological Society and Yosemite National Park Conservation and Recovery Facility, was officially dedicated at ceremonies on May 25. Representatives from collaborating organizations attended the ceremony, including 54 fourth graders from North Hillsborough School that will help to release turtles next month in Yosemite Valley.

“This is a landmark event for Yosemite National Park and an historic opportunity to reestablish species’ that contribute to a healthy park ecosystem,” said Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher. “This is also one of the Signature Centennial projects for the National Park Service and it will be exciting to once again see California red-legged frogs and Western pond turtles in Yosemite Valley.”

The disappearance of the two species’ from Yosemite Valley is the result of a variety of decisions made over nearly a century. The introduction of non-native, highly invasive and predatory American Bullfrogs to the Ahwahnee Hotel refection pond in the 1950s is the most definitive cause of the California red-legged frog decline. Artificially high populations of raccoons, which are predators of turtles and frogs, resulted from open refuse sites in the 1970s and severely impacted populations. Removal of large woody debris along the Merced River also contributed to the decline of Western pond turtles. Over decades, those conditions were reversed. The invasive bullfrogs have been eradicated, open refuse sites closed, and naturally occurring river and stream bank habitat left in place to allow for a successful reintroduction of the native frogs and turtles.

Yosemite Conservancy donors contributed $185,000 for research and habitat restoration to restore frogs and turtles in Yosemite. Over the past decade, the Conservancy has provided $540,000 to protect aquatic species in the park.

“Our donors’ generosity and the important work of our partners is providing a new generation of visitors with the opportunity to experience these species in Yosemite Valley for the first time,” said Yosemite Conservancy President Frank Dean. “Maintaining the natural balance of biodiversity in the park is important to its long-term well-being and to sustaining opportunities for visitors to experience the park as nature intended.”

Over 500 California red-legged frog tadpoles and 14 Western pond turtles are being raised in a safe and isolated area at San Francisco Zoo & Gardens. The quarantined environment was created to accommodate the specific needs of the animals under the care of staff members and interns. 

“Small animals like frogs and turtles are the indicators of environmental health and an important part of the food chain. We have to save them in order to conserve all wildlife,” said San Francisco Zoo & Gardens President Tanya M. Peterson. “We are grateful to Yosemite National Park and Yosemite Conservancy for asking us to partner on this significant collaboration, which will have an immediate impact right in our own backyard.” 

NatureBridge, which provides hands-on environmental science programs for children and teens, will participate with the National Park Service in releasing the frogs and turtles in Yosemite Valley.

The California red-legged frog was made famous by Mark Twain in his story the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country.” It is 2-5 inches long and is the largest native frog in the western United States. It is reddish in color on the underside of the legs and belly, and communicates with a series of short soft grunts. It is found in ponds, pools and streams and wet meadows. The Western pond turtle generally measures 4-7 inches long. It is olive, dark brown or blackish in color, with undersides that are yellow with irregular color patches. It is found in streams, pools and vegetated banks, often seen basking on a log or rock.

Yosemite National Park celebrated its 125th Anniversary last year and is currently celebrating its Centennial Anniversary with the National Park Service. The park welcomes over four million visitors from all over the world each year and serves as a strong economic engine for the region and local communities. Yosemite National Park generates $535 million in economic benefit to the local region and directly supports 6,261 jobs. The park is home to Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, and iconic rock formations such as Half Dome and El Capitan. The park also features approximately 90 different species of mammals and over 1500 species of plants. 

Through the support of donors, Yosemite Conservancy provides grants and support to Yosemite National Park to help preserve and protect Yosemite today and for future generations. Work funded by the Conservancy is visible throughout the park, in trail rehabilitation, wildlife protection and habitat restoration. The Conservancy is also dedicated to enhancing the visitor experience and providing a deeper connection to the park through outdoor programs, volunteering, wilderness services and its bookstores. Thanks to dedicated supporters, the Conservancy has provided more than $100 million in grants to Yosemite National Park. Learn more at or call 1-415-434-1782.

Established in 1929, San Francisco Zoo & Gardens connects people to wildlife, inspires caring for nature and advances conservation action. An urban oasis, the Zoo & Gardens are home to more than 2,000 exotic, endangered and rescued animals representing more than 250 species as well as seven distinct gardens full of native and unusual plants. Located at the edge of the Pacific Ocean where the Great Highway meets Sloat Boulevard, the Zoo is open 365 days a year from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (summer hours) and is accessible by San Francisco MUNI "L" Taraval Line.

Last updated: May 26, 2016

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