Katy Delaney hikes through the Santa Monica Mountains, climbing boulders and splashing into creeks, searching for a spot a frog could love.
The California red-legged frog, featured in Mark Twain's short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," thrived in streams there until the 1970s, when the species all but disappeared.
It was found again recently, but this time in just a small stretch of pristine water running high up in the Las Virgenes Canyon.
"It's like eight big, nice pools, and that's it," said Delaney, a wildlife ecologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Scientists have talked for several years about moving frogs to other streams, hoping to boost the threatened species' population. Last year, the National Park Service started fieldwork, surveying 25 to 30 streams to find suitable habitat.
Plans call for moving eggs from Las Virgenes to one or two other streams in 2014.
"We want to put them somewhere they lived before, and somewhere where they will thrive," she said.
Delaney and wildlife ecologist Seth Riley recently hiked in the National Park Service's Solstice Canyon, traversing a stream that riffled through steep boulders and emptied into pools. The Malibu location is one of seven spots in Ventura and Los Angeles counties still under consideration for the frogs.
As they hiked from section to section, they measured and took notes. The running water was good news for the scientists.
"We have native tree frogs. They are fine if streams dry up. They can be out of the water for a good part of the year," Riley said.
Red-legged frogs are in a different family and need year-round water, a requirement that raises some challenges in Southern California, he said.
They also are looking for places without invasive species such as crayfish, that have pools 1.5-feet deep or deeper, and with vegetation growing nearby.
The Solstice Canyon stream meets the criteria, but Delaney is concerned about the number of people who like to hike off the marked trails. That could cause problems for small pens that initially would be used to protect the tadpoles.
Plans call for moving eggs, not frogs.
"If you move frogs, they move back," Delaney said. "They have a very, very strong homing behavior."
It's not the first time someone has tried it. In 2001, scientists at Pinnacles National Monument near Soledad had success with a similar approach, moving hundreds of eggs from nearby streams to the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
The California red-legged frogs had disappeared from the reservoir in the 1980s, likely because of an infestation of catfish. The frogs lived along streams, but their numbers were dwindling.
After several years of moving egg masses, nearly 500 young frogs were counted at the reservoir, Pinnacles officials said.
Researchers don't know exactly what caused the frogs to disappear from streams here, Riley said. Development, invasive species and a fungus that swept through the area all could be factors.
By expanding the frog's territory to multiple streams, the National Park Service hopes to increase its survival chances here. Losing one species can impact an entire ecosystem.
"We don't want to lose our very last population of these frogs," Delaney said. "Everyone here wants to do everything we can do to help this project succeed."
(Contact Cheri Carlson of the Ventura County Star in California at CCarlson@vcstar.com.)