Boreal Toads on the Brink
By Alesha Damerville
Images by Jennie Lay
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- Six urban 17-year-olds sporting waders stepped tentatively into a Rocky Mountain bog. It was uncharted terrain for these young women. But this is home turf – and maybe even a last stand – for the endangered boreal toad.
Amphibians – that’s frogs, toads, salamanders and newts – are in big trouble. A global study published in the Journal of Herpetology calculates amphibians’ extinction rate to be more than 45,000 times higher than the background rate. Humans are associated directly with nearly every aspect of their demise, from habitat destruction to fertilizers, pesticides, pollutants, climate change and infectious diseases like Bd, shorthand for batrachochytrium dendrobatidis. Bd is a fungus that causes a disease called chytridiomycosis, aka chytrid. Chytrid is the lead culprit wiping out boreal toads in the Rocky Mountain region.
During the past two decades, boreal toad populations have plummeted. They are listed as endangered in Colorado and New Mexico, and are a protected species in Wyoming. Once abundant in slow-moving streams, beaver ponds and marshy meadows, the stocky, short-legged toads with a pale stripe down the spine live in the high country, well above 7,000 feet. Surviving up to 12 years, females don’t reproduce until they are about 6 years old. Then they breed every other year, or less.
On a cold, drizzly July day, the Denver School of Science and Technology students learned to navigate high altitude giddiness and ankle-sucking mud in a Routt County creek harnessed by beaver dams and hemmed in by willows and tall grasses. As participants in Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future, or LEAF, an internship with The Nature Conservancy, they were stockpiling experiences to be future conservation leaders. During weeks in Routt County, monitoring boreal toads with local U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Melissa Dressen was just one of their many hands-on lessons.
Setting out with nets and pockets full of blue surgical gloves to prevent any possible chytrid cross-contamination, it wasn’t long before the first screech of “Found one!” rang through the air. Soon, the pace of discovery escalated. Morning trepidation marked by peevish teenage eye rolls and revulsion at handling fist-sized, warty-skinned creatures gave way to inquisitiveness and blatant admiration. Every encounter included minutes of intimate inspection, spawning newfound love for toads and nature alike.
The solemn act of searching for and finding a vanishing species in the wilderness was not lost on youthful consciousness. Before long, these citizen scientists, most of whom expressed aspirations to become doctors and engineers, were hanging out waist-high in a mud hole, reveling in weird new sensations of dirt, rainwater and toad toes touching fingertips. They let nature suck them in.
Meanwhile, boreal toads kept turning up – hiding in the wet grass, tucked under a bush, swimming in a shallow pond. Under the guidance of Forest Service field biologists, each squirmy toad was weighed, measured and swabbed for a chytrid test back in the lab.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Liza Rossi has been monitoring boreal toads for about a decade. Unfortunately, the vast majority of known sites are chytrid positive, she says. In fact, the location where the LEAF interns were surveying, a relatively new find in the past five years, is only the second chytrid-negative site known in the area.
In January this year, it was a relief to learn that all 2017 samples taken from this particular site remained chytrid free.
But the toads’ broader future is uncertain. Despite dramatic decline and genetic studies that show this is an evolutionarily significant population in the Southern Rockies, in October the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the boreal toad as federally threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Local action may make the difference. This summer, Dressen and her team will secure protection measures and begin restoration on surrounding habitat for one of Routt County’s rare stands of disease-free boreal toads.
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