August 6, 2013

Defenders of Wildlife has set itself the goal of moving more than 100 endangered species up the federal recovery ladder over the next decade. Our “Road to Recovery” series will highlight several of these plants and animals and outline the challenges that lay ahead for improving their status.

Captive breeding and collaboration lead to salvation

Being one of a kind is usually a good thing, but not if you’re a Wyoming toad. This two-inch amphibian is so rare that it’s considered the most endangered amphibian in North America. It lives in just one tiny area of southeastern Wyoming, and the population is no longer self-sustaining. Thankfully, captive breeding programs and collaborative conservation efforts are helping to rescue this species before it’s too late.

WY toad1s USFWS wmLittle is known about the Wyoming toad since so few of them exist in the wild. These brown and green, knobby-skinned toads spend their entire lives in and near water, including rivers, streams, ponds and seepages. They eat ants, beetles and insects and hibernate for much of the year, then emerge in May or June to breed.

The species was first reported by a Wyoming graduate student in 1946 and was commonly found in the Laramie Basin of Albany County for the next few decades. But the population declined sharply in the ‘70s, partly as a result of aerial spraying for mosquito control and other factors. Wyoming toads all but disappeared, and the species was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1984. For a few years, the species was presumed extinct, until a tiny population was discovered by a fisherman at Mortensen Lake in 1987. The area has been protected ever since and is now part of a national wildlife refuge.

Though the exact cause of the decline is still debated, a very different threat has now taken center stage. A deadly fungus called chytrid currently plagues amphibians from Panama to Australia, and it’s taking a toll on Wyoming toads as well. Many international research projects are exploring ways to treat the fungus and stop the spread of the disease, while hundreds of species slide closer to extinction.

Yet, even in the face of this major threat, there is still hope for the Wyoming toad. Captive breeding programs began in 1994 and are now conducted at 11 different institutions. More than 500 Wyoming toads survive in captivity, and more than 100,000 tadpoles and toadlets have been released into the wild since 1995. See the video below from the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension about a captive breeding program at the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery:

One of the most promising release sites is land owned by the Buford Foundation, an outdoor camp for urban kids near Laramie, Wyoming. The landowners have agreed to implement conservation measures and allow tadpoles, toadlets and toads to be released under a flexible partnership known as a Safe Harbor agreement. This arrangement has led to the restoration of wetlands and the incorporation of rotational grazing and seasonal crop irrigation that actually enhances the survival of toads. In exchange for their cooperation, participating ranchers are not penalized for accidentally harming any toads that may begin to breed on their property.

At Mortensen Lake National Wildlife Refuge, land mangers are turning to proscribed burns to help create more toad habitat. Toads like to breed in warm, shallow water, so too much shade from tall grasses can actually impeded reproduction. That’s why last year up to 23 acres of prairie grassland was burned at the refuge to benefit Wyoming toads.

While the future of this species is not yet secure, the combination of ongoing research and collaborative conservation efforts already underway give this charming toad a decent shot at recovery. Captive breeding will ensure that more toads can be reintroduced to the wild while scientists continue to find ways of increasing their odds of survival. Further, concrete action plans have been developed that outline clear steps to successful recovery. With adequate funding and a research breakthrough or two, Wyoming toads have a good chance of expanding their habitat and securing a brighter future.

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