Illegal frogs seized in Reno

RENO " "It's not just an ordinary frog!" says Grow-a-Frog's Web site.

It also turns out the mail-order tadpoles are not legal in Nevada and at least 10 other U.S. states.

Acting on scores of telephone tips from unsuspecting owners of the outlaw amphibians, Nevada game wardens say they tracked down Grow-a-Frog as the source of nearly 200 African clawed frogs they've seized in recent weeks.

The Florida-based Grow-a-Frog, which takes orders over the phone and the Internet, has agreed to pay a $3,600 fine and stop sending the unwelcome guests to Nevada, said Capt. Cameron Waithman, the Nevada Department of Wildlife warden who led the months-long investigation.

Banned as an illegal invasive species, the clawed green creatures that live mostly in the water and grow as large as bullfrogs can destroy entire ecosystems if they escape by voraciously eating native fish and just about anything they can swallow, he said.

"I know a whole lot more about frogs now than I did a month ago," said Waithman, who more typically investigates poaching of elk and antelope.

Agents seized 119 of the frogs from three Reno homes last month and publicized the raids to get the word out they're illegal. Inundated with calls, they recovered another 68 this week in seven Nevada counties.

"I had my wardens out all across the state " everywhere from Reno to Las Vegas, Elko, Ely," Waithman said.

Some scientists believe the frogs carry and spread an African fungus that has decimated frog populations worldwide, he said. Nevadans who knowingly possess them are subject to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

"This was never about writing tickets to people who were shipped these frogs," said Rob Buonamici, NDOW's chief game warden. "This investigation came together very quickly and the public has been onboard since day one."

Company officials cooperated in the investigation, providing customer records so wardens could contact people who made purchases at growafrog.com, Waithman said.

"Absolutely none of the folks had any idea they were prohibited. Most of them didn't know what they had," he said.

Some expressed genuine concern about the environmental threat, while others "just said, 'I'm not going to jail for these frogs."'

Other states that outlaw the frogs without a special permit include Arizona, California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia and Washington.

Grow-a-Frog officials did not respond to e-mails from The Associated Press seeking comment on Wednesday and Thursday.

NDOW spokesman Edwin Lyngar said that the president of the company, Paul Rudnick, said he was aware that the frogs are illegal in Nevada and that a mistake was made at their facility.

"He was very apologetic and very cooperative," Lyngar told AP. "They sell a lot of products and he said the wrong products were sent to the wrong places. He paid the fine very quickly."

Waithman said some bought the frogs because nowhere on the Web site does Grow-A-Frog say what kind of frogs they sell.

"That was part of my issue with them when I talked with them," he said. "I believe they are going to change that so when they send the tadpoles they tell people what they are. Or at least I hope they do."

Waithman said the African clawed frogs are only the latest non-native species to be caught in Nevada.

Over the past several weeks, game wardens have seized a variety of prohibited wildlife including piranhas, a freshwater shark and a cobra, he said.

"Like many states across the country we have real concerns regarding the importation and possession of prohibited species," Waithman said.

"It's not hard to imagine the havoc we could face if these animals escaped and we ended up with a wild population of cobras or piranha in Nevada. These prohibited species are not only a danger to our ecosystem, they are a danger to our citizens."

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