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Let's just drain the Lily Pond and kill the frogs 

Wednesday, Aug 11 2010

Ralph Montana, the city official charged with abating San Francisco's park-dwelling pests, recently found his thoughts invaded by cannibalistic greenish-gray creatures. "I woke up Saturday night thinking about this," says Montana, the Department of Recreation and Parks' acting integrated pest management coordinator.

Part of his job includes working with state officials to purge a tiny Golden Gate Park pond of African clawed frogs. And he isn't the only one the pests are giving nightmares. The frogs' uncontrollable eating habits threaten California's waterways.

"They're very invasive, aggressive, and will eat anything they can stuff in their mouths," Oakland animal activist Eric Mills says of the frogs.

The Lily Pond across from the Conservatory of Flowers is one of the few sites in Northern California infested with the critters. The frogs have consumed the pond's other frogs and fish, and have taken to eating each other — just as they'll do in other lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams if they manage to reach them. For now, they're stuck in the pond, because the aquatic frogs die on land.

If a child fishing in Golden Gate Park were to take home a few pollywogs and subsequently let them go in the wild, the state could face an infestation of the frogs that could cleanse myriad native species from, say, the Sacramento River delta.

But for at least six years, officials with the city's Department of Recreation and Parks and the state Department of Fish and Game have bungled efforts to eliminate the frogs. Instead of simply draining the pond and killing all the frogs, bureaucrats have taken a more expensive, less effective, yet more palatable approach to a problem that will be recognized by place-sitting public officials throughout history. Instead, state and city officials coordinate to skim a percentage of the frogs from the pond every year, leaving few enough of them that park visitors are less likely to take them home.

"Fish and Game says, 'We're working on it.' Bullshit. They totally screwed this one up," says retired state warden Miles Young. As a patrol lieutenant overseeing San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties, in 2003 he assembled a group of experts to get rid of the frogs, but was thwarted by Sacramento superiors: "It was all set and ready to go, and they canceled it."

One line of thinking was that the spectacle of killing thousands of frogs might have made the agency look bad. But "managing" rather than solving our killer frog problem, and thus running the risk of saddling the city with millions of dollars in environmental lawsuits, stands to make San Francisco look even worse.

In his 2006 New Yorker essay, "Million-Dollar Murray," Malcolm Gladwell described how problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage. He used the example of researchers who made extensive calculations in order to determine that a homeless man ran up massive bills for medical and other services because the local government hadn't spent the money to give him a home or access to preventive care.

In the case of Golden Gate Park's ravenous African clawed frogs, it takes little calculation to realize that the decision to "manage" rather than solve the problem is backward in the extreme.

Nobody knows how the frogs got to Lily Pond, but they have an intimate, if mostly forgotten place in local history. During the 1950s, they were part of a commonly used pregnancy test, whereby urine from a woman who'd missed her period was injected into a female frog. If the frog ovulated, it meant the woman was pregnant. But that was then and this is now, and the frogs have been relegated to merely invasive pests.

Truly getting rid of the frogs would involve draining the pond, digging up spawn-and-tadpole–infested muck, and either killing them with chemicals or letting them dry out. City and state bureaucrats have paid lip service to the idea that they support this possibility. But there seem to be no specific plans afoot.

Eric Larson, supervising biologist and deputy regional manager for the state Department of Fish and Game's central coast region, who coordinates the frog management program, didn't return two calls requesting comment.

But Mills forwarded me an e-mail he received from Larson in mid-July, in which Larson wrote: "Any eradication effort at the park will require careful planning and would be subject to environmental review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act. ... The Department remains committed to assisting the City in this undertaking. However, sufficient funds to develop and implement an eradication program must first be secured."

Larson's statement raises the question: Can you truly be "committed" to doing something, yet have no specific intention of actually doing it?

This leaves Montana to make the best of the job he's been given: culling some of the frogs each year, based on the theory that if there are fewer of them, and if the water is kept at a reasonably low level, the frogs will be prevented from migrating over wet ground to other ponds in the park.

Young says this is inconsistent with the African clawed frogs' life cycle: They are purely aquatic and can't survive on land. "They migrate, sure — in Africa when the plains flood," says Young, who assembled a crew of scientists and other experts to advise the aborted 2003 frog operation. "If they want to get rid of them, they need to drain the pond, suck them out, and be done with it."

This has been common knowledge for years. In May 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page article about what it called "weirdly bloated cartoon frogs." The article said city and state officials had "known of the clawed frog situation for some time." But after Young retired, nobody else took up the banner of complete frog eradication. So it has been left to Montana to purge the frogs each year.

It's a Sisyphean task, because the pond is choked with two other unabated invasive species. For the past year, visitors to the pond have seen what looks like an algae-infested swamp strewn with occasional castaway bottles and plastic wrappers. The green film isn't algae. It's duckweed, a tiny plant that covers the surface of the pond. The duckweed has been joined by parrot feather, a lacy, fernlike weed that sticks up above the water.

Nonnative plants don't normally count as a crisis in Golden Gate Park — it's largely former sand dunes now covered in grass, after all. But the duckweed makes it impossible to conduct the annual frog-skimming exercise, because the seine nets get bogged down in weeds. "You can't even swing a net in that stuff," Montana says.

San Francisco rules about using herbicides make getting rid of the plants no simple matter. After getting permission from the Department of the Environment, Montana found the Sonar brand aquatic herbicide he'd bought wasn't working right, so now he needs to consult with a company rep before possibly applying the stuff again. Of course, fixing the duckweed problem only enables the underlying cycle of futility — Montana will be able to skim off frogs with his net, but the ones left behind will spend the rest of the year repopulating the pond.

Young thinks such half-measures are a waste of time and money.

"They could have done this for a fifth of the cost they do every year they do seining the frogs," he says. "I watched as they wade around in the muck, and frogs were zipping ahead of them. It's ridiculous. We had a pump that would have drained the pond in three and a half hours."

Mills said he could easily raise a team of volunteers to get rid of the frogs, but says he cannot get permission from park officials.

"I'm writing a book on the damned thing," Young says, "about the inefficiency of the whole operation."

In San Francisco, that genre could fill a library.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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