Once nearly extinct, the Wyoming toad may recover
by Kelsey Dayton
— May 13, 2014
Once upon a time a small, two-inch brownish, greenish toad dotted with dark blotches and warts and named for the one place it was found, was one of the most plentiful species in the Laramie Basin in Wyoming.
Today the Wyoming toad is almost a thing of myths, no longer found in the wild after disease and a landscape changed by development pushed the species into decline in the 1970s and onto the endangered species list in 1984. It is now one of the four most endangered amphibians in North America. But with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Cooperative Recovery Initiative, which allocated $800,000 in April to helping the Wyoming Toad, and a new draft recovery plan released in February 2014, researchers are hopeful that the toad will again make the Laramie Basin home.
This summer researchers are working on managing vegetation to create a desirable habitat for the toads, finding ways to treat a fungus that’s contributed to the species decline and trying to improve the survival of toads released into the wild at Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
University of Wyoming student George Baxter first discovered the Wyoming Toad in 1946 and described it as a “common” species in the Laramie Basin, said Kim Vincent, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologist on the toad recovery team. Found only in Albany County, Wyoming, the toad is considered a glacial relic of the Canadian Toad, meaning the related populations were separated by the glaciers.
The population dwindled in the 1970s when a fungus attacked and spread through the population. The toads also struggled as their habitat shrank. Wyoming Toads thrive in oxbows . They need vegetated areas where they can hide from predators while basking in the sun. Irrigation and grazing changed the courses of winding waters and vegetation lengths in the basin area, Vincent said.
The population declined until there were only 10 toads left at Mortenson Lake. Those were taken into captivity to breed in 1989. Biologists tried to reintroduce toad populations to the Mortenson Lake area, but were unsuccessful, with the population staying at less than 50 toads and dropping to a low of just one toad in 2011 and 2012.
More than 800 toadlets were released in August 2012 using “soft releases” where tadpoles are brought back to the area in mesh cages for protection through metamorphosis. Biologists then move the toads to small corrals where they are still protected, but can feed and grow until they are ready for full release. Surveys in 2013 found 507 toads in varying life stages at the lake.
The money from the Cooperative Recovery Initiative, a competitive grant program through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, will in part go to expanding the soft release program, Vincent said. Efforts to help the toad will ramp up this summer at the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery, which will expand its facilities by 900-square-feet to give the toads more space to grow.
Money from the initiative will also go to developing a treatment to combat the fungus that kills the toads and studying vegetation to create a desirable habitat for the amphibians.
University of Wyoming researchers have been studying what height of vegetation best helps the toads survive. Mid-heights of about six inches seemed to help the toads survive better and grow faster, providing sunlight to warm up and fight the fungus. Such vegetation also allows the amphibians to see insects they eat and hide from predators, said Melanie Murphy, assistant professor in the ecosystem science and management program at the University of Wyoming.
Historically the Laramie Basin was grazed by ungulates and often experienced fires. With the exception of small controlled burns, Murphy said the area hasn’t burned in a long time. In the future, vegetation could be managed by cattle and fire. For this summer, the vegetation will be cut manually as scientists use yard tools to test what height is best.
It’s a lot of work but the Wyoming toad is special. Amphibians are considered indicator species and often when populations decline it’s a sign of problems within the ecosystem that can later impact other species. The toads also are an important part of the food chain in the area, where they eat insects and get eaten by birds. Research on the toads also helps scientists better understand other amphibian species.
Many people haven’t even heard of the toad because the public can’t see it in the wild — Mortenson Lake is closed to protect the toads from disease. But Murphy said the species is an example of one the things that makes Wyoming so special. “It’s worth being proud of, or at least knowing about,” she said.
A happy ending for the toad is possible. The official goal in the recovery plan is to build up five self-sustaining populations at different sites. That could take up to 20 years, but if this summer’s work on habitat and disease treatment succeeds, the population at Mortenson Lake could become self-sustaining in the next few years.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
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