Toad and Friends

Written By: Kailee Ellis, Southern Utah University, Communications Major; Mike Golden Dixie NF Biologist, Marcia Gilles, Dixie NF Public Affairs.

The croaking of frogs and toads are part of the soundtrack of summer. This sound may dwindle as some species of toad are struggling to survive. Utah is the home of several species of amphibians, one of which is the Boreal toad, but these chubby speckled creatures are currently being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. There are several reasons why the biologists at the Dixie National Forest and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources want to prevent the listing of Boreal toads.

Photo of Boreal toads mating with egg strands.First toads are dying off faster than they can reproduce, due to chytrid fungus, a pathogen that has caused mortality in amphibians across the world. Boreal toads can be found all across the western United States, but along the Sevier River on the Paunsaugunt Plateau of the Powell Ranger District there is a population of toads that testing has shown to be “genetically distinct.” This genetic distinction means that they have traits and genes that have not been found in any other population of boreal toads. This distinction means that even if boreal toads outside of Utah are doing well this particular group of toads could be listed as a Distinct Population Segment under the Endangered Species Act. Mike Golden, the Dixie National Forest Fish Biologist, says “Keeping that genetic variety around could be good for boreal toads in the future. These toads are genetically distinct for a reason and with an uncertain future and a changing environment those genetics might be important in allowing boreal toads to survive in a wider landscape.”

Photo of a toad being tagged.The Paunsaugunt Plateau has gone through habitat degradation over the past century Boreal toads are not the only species affected. While most of the species are still present some species have restricted distributions and lower numbers. The trees and animals all have an impact on one another and to save one species from being listed as threatened or endangered often creates a domino effect of ecological restoration. Willow trees used to line the banks of streams and an abundance of beavers lived off the willows and the large aspen stands nearby. Historical overuse of riparian areas along with fire suppression in the uplands helped caused declines in willow and aspen communities, and beaver populations have declined in association with the loss of these valuable food and dam building resources. Boreal toad populations on the Paunsaugunt appear to have used beaver ponds for breeding almost exclusively. With the loss of beaver and their food source, dams have breached causing critical breeding habitat to be lost, as well as decreasing bank stability and increasing erosion. The Dixie National Forest doesn’t just want to save the toads, they want to restore a healthy ecosystem for the plants, animals, and people to enjoy. This is being done through three major projects; beaver dam building and relocation; livestock enclosures and land restoration; and assurance colonies.

Beaver on private lands can create infrastructure complications for landowners, and public lands offer places for ecological habitat benefit and reduce negative impacts to human structures. To help solve this problem, the state of Utah has a Beaver Management Plan in place to capture beavers on private lands and release them into identified areas of public land where reintroduced beaver would provide ecological benefits. The Forest Service has been working to make sure these relocated beavers can maintain and expand their populations in their new found homes. Crews go to places beavers can live and build the beginnings of a dam. These human made dams make it easier for the beaver to settle in and make their home, ensuring they will stay.

Livestock enclosures are fences put around sections of land that need time to regrow before large animals like cattle are allowed back in. There are already livestock enclosures in several ecologically important places on the Dixie National Forest, using exclosures to help jump start willow growth and protect recent aspen regeneration projects will improve habitat for beaver, boreal toad and other wildlife. Once there is a healthy amount of vegetation; fully grown aspen trees for beavers to use for food and dams; and willow trees along the banks of rivers and streams, these enclosures will be taken down.

Land restoration is not only about helping the boreal toads survive, but making the land better for everyone. Trees and bushes near and around running water prevent erosion and the willows that grow along the banks slow down the flow of water, forcing the water to soak into the ground, creating a higher water table. A high water table is valuable during times of drought and coupled with the other wetland vegetation surrounding streams and rivers, can also reduce the impacts of flooding. In addition to constructing enclosures to protect vegetation, Forest and UDWR personnel are planting willows and conducting vegetation treatments to stimulate young aspen growth.

Photo of a couple of people constructing dam to provide for more habitat. Photo of a group of people working on a dam to improve Boreal toad habitat.

During the process of trying to restore the habitat and reintroducing beavers into important areas on the plateau, boreal toads are being raised in captivity and released back into the wild.  Egg strands are taken from the known breeding sites on the plateau and are transported to places like the State of Utah’s Wahweap Fish Hatchery, where they grow from tadpoles to small toads. Many of these small toads are released into the wild. The remaining small toads are housed by facilities like Utah’s Hogle Zoo, where their unique genetics can be preserved and researchers are working on captive breeding programs.

This year 54 boreal toads were released into a section of the East Fork Sevier River on a field tour for Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, which is funding portions of the habitat restoration work. Jake Schoppe, wildlife biologist on the Powell Ranger District was excited to have so many different partners participating in the toad release. Schoppe knows that sometimes people get a little shy to get involved with the complexities of sensitive species management, but it was rewarding for everyone to see the toads released. “They put their fears aside and said, ‘this is a good thing, I’m returning something into the wild,’ hoping for long term success,” said Shoppe.

Keeping boreal toads off the endangered species list would be beneficial to many. Once a species has been put on the list the recreational and commercial uses of its natural habitat are at risk of increasing restriction. Ongoing land management activities, such as commercial timber harvest, livestock grazing and mineral development could face changes in how they are allowed to operate. Similarly, recreational uses such as camping, fishing, and ATV riding could also be limited by new restrictions to protect the species or their habitat.

Photo of the partners that contributed to the project.The boreal toad’s potential listing as threatened or endangered could affect many people in Southern Utah therefore working together to find solutions and keep them off the list is a priority. The best way to help is by supporting the programs connected to the boreal toads. There are ways to donate and volunteer for the Forest Service. Getting support from the community is very important to conservation efforts and donating can be simple. A new adopt a beaver program is available at the Powell Ranger District office or the Red Canyons Visitor Center to buy and “adopt” a toy stuffed beaver. Most of the money from the sales of the “Adopt a Beaver” program go to helping conservation and it is a great way to learn more. Everyone that has participated in the program understand they are contributing to restoring and reconnecting a healthy forest habitat for future generations. Similarly, donations of volunteer time or money to boreal toad conservation partners like Hogle Zoo, Denver Zoo or the State of Utah’s Wahweap Fish Hatchery can help increase survey efforts and /or improve captive rearing and breeding programs.

If you have any questions or would like to be part of the solution feel free to call or visit any of the Dixie National Forest offices across Southern Utah, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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