Nature News & Events

Utah biologists working to save boreal toads from annihilation

July 23, 2017
Tyler Arnold holds an adult boreal toad found in the Monte Cristo Range on Thursday, July 12, 2017.

Story by Leia Larsen • Photos by Benjamin Zack • Standard-Examiner staff

At twilight on a warm evening in the Monte Cristo Range last week, a group of biologists whooped and cheered after finding a palm-sized boreal toad with a distinctive red spot on his head.

They call the creature “O’Shaughnessy,” reasoning that the spot makes him a redhead in the amphibian world and thus deserving of an Irish moniker. The biologists have developed an affection for the toad. They first caught and tagged him in 2004.

He fell off their radar for a decade, then somehow showed up at a new pond more than 2 miles away. They figure he’s at least 14 years old, if not pushing 20, which means he’s had a long battle against the many environmental odds working against him.

“There’s our old man,” said Cody Edwards, native aquatics biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Northern Region.

They’re able to track O’Shaughnessy, and thousands of toads like him, by inserting electronic tags similar to those used to microchip dogs.

“We’ve been putting these tags in since the early 2000s. We’ve tagged almost 2,000 toads since the beginning of this program,” Edwards said.

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Chance Broderius weighs a boreal toad that was found near a pond in the Monte Cristo Range on Thursday, July 12, 2017. Researchers measure, examine and tag every adult toad they catch.

State biologists have put such a massive effort into tracking, measuring and tagging the toads because they’re on the brink of collapse. It’s a plight facing amphibians worldwide.

On the conservative side, researchers estimate 200 frog species (scientists don’t distinguish between toads and frogs in taxonomy) have already gone extinct.

Hundreds more face the same fate. It’s a mass extinction alarming many biologists in the United States and beyond.

“They act like an environmental indicator, so when their environment starts to degrade, they’re often the first things to disappear,” said Kayleigh Mullen, citizen science biologist with Utah’s Hogle Zoo. “They’re like an early warning sign.”

As one biologist told High Country News last year, amphibians represent an entire class in the animal kingdom. If every bear, whale, human and house cat in the world faced imminent collapse, we’d certainly be paying attention. Frogs, salamanders and caecilians, however, don’t seem to be causing the same outcry.

“They’re not a big, charismatic species and they’re not a game species. No one hunts for toads,” said Chance Broderius, another DWR native aquatics biologist. “That’s another part of the problem and what we need to change … Once there’s interest in the species, there’s money to be had that can be offered to help.”

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Tyler Arnold, left, Jared Watson, center, and Cody Edwards search for boreal toadsThursday, July 12, 2017, in the Monte Cristo Range. Biologists from around the state are studying the rare high-elevation amphibians. Boreal toad populations have been shrinking around the West. The large toads are difficult to study, but Utah scientists are trying to get a better idea of how local populations are doing.

Boreal toads are tough to track. They blend in well with their environment, they’re mostly active at night and they’re not vocal like other frogs. The only sound they make is a little squeak males use to keep other males away.

That makes it hard for biologists to pin down how many toads live in Utah — but their yearly surveys indicate populations have taken a massive hit.

“It’s clear they are declining. That decline is widespread. It’s happening here,” Mullen said. “Something has to be done.”

Part of the problem causing amphibian declines around the globe, including boreal toads, is a fungus-caused disease — chytridiomycosis, or “chytrid” for short. It thickens amphibians’ skin so they can’t absorb water or nutrients. They basically dry out and die.

“It’s a visual; you’ll see a lot of areas that are effected. It looks like an abrasion on the skin,” Edwards said.

The toads’ biggest plight, however, isn’t chytrid. It’s people.

“The number one most common threat is simple habitat destruction,” said Jenny Loda, reptile and amphibian staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

In the southern Rocky Mountain region, which includes Utah, the center estimates boreal toads have been reduced to one percent of their historic breeding range.

The animals require a unique blend of habitat to thrive — ponds with sloping bottoms so they can lay eggs in the shallows, land vegetation to hide from predators, burrows to hibernate.

Grazing and recreation are altering that habitat in big ways. Those impacts are clear in the Monte Cristo Range. It’s likely why old O’Shaughnessy abandoned his pond years ago for one miles uphill. It’s been several years since biologist found any toads at his old pond, which is right next to a road.

“In fact, this year there were tire tracks right through the middle of (that) pond,” Edwards said. “I think that can kind of explain what’s happening.”

In south-central Utah, state biologists found a handful of boreal toads for the first time in years. They had deposited eggs in a water-filled tire rut.

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Tyler Arnold weighs a boreal toad that was found near a pond in the Monte Cristo Range on Thursday, July 12, 2017. Researchers measure, examine and tag every adult toad they catch. This specific toad weighed 114 grams, making it one of the largest animals they’ve found in their study.

“Luckily they found those egg masses and were able to move them … to hopefully a more suitable location where those tadpoles can survive,” Edwards said. “But I think as we expand our use of four-wheelers, there are so many unmarked trails people are blazing. I think it has a huge effect on these populations.”

Elsewhere in the state, invasive, water-sucking plant species have moved in. Humans have brought several other species to the West that are reeking havoc for the boreal toad as well, including bullfrogs.

Those massive amphibians first made their way to Utah in the 1970s, according to the DWR. Plant nurseries along the Wasatch Front gave them away to lure people into buying water features.  They’ve been bad news for native amphibians — they’re voracious feeders that eat toads and tadpoles and compete for their habitat.

Bullfrogs are also more resistant to chytrid, but they carry it and spread it to native populations.

Then there are water diversions and human-caused climate change that have drastically altered the wet environments where toads thrive.

Still, toads in Utah’s northern regions are doing better than populations elsewhere in the state.

“We’re starting to see some stability with our populations,” Edwards said. “They’re not growing, but they’ve declined and now they’re somewhat holding at where their lower numbers are at.”

One population in the Grouse Creek Range seems to be adapting to its environmental demands. Those boreal toads are breeding at human-made ponds for livestock, around 2,000 feet below their normal elevation range.

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Cody Edwards, left, and Chance Broderius search for boreal toads Thursday, July 12, 2017 in the Monte Cristo Range. Boreal toads live in very fragile habitats. Many toad populations around the West have also declined due to a fungus, known as chytrid, that is present in wetland soils.

When biologists moved a male and female pair across the mountain range, over Rocky Pass, to try and establish a new breeding population at another pond, they found them back at their home pond a few years later.

“They went right up over that pass. That was a 4.6-mile straight-line distance,” Edwards said. “There’s no way they made a straight line through those cliffs, so it could be well over five miles as the toad hops or crawls or however he gets around.”

Some biologists theorize the Grouse Creek toads might be fighting off chytrid, too, because they’re in a hotter and drier climate than most boreal toad populations.

“That’s one hypothesis we’ve kind of thrown around,”  Broderius said. “It hasn’t been tested yet … but the fact that it’s so much drier it doesn’t produce conditions (chytrid fungus) would maybe need to grow on the toad.”

While much of the boreal toad’s lifecycle and habits remain a mystery, scientists are getting a better sense of their movements through tagging and monitoring efforts like those DWR has done. And those efforts were largely fueled by efforts to keep the toads off the endangered species list.

Environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity have long-fought for an endangered species listing since the 1990s.

After reaching a settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will likely issue a listing decision on the boreal toad by the end of September.

“A lot more information is known about them now because there has been this increased monitoring and searching for them. But what I’ve seen from data I’ve been able to get, it’s not like they’ve suddenly been discovered to be doing super well,” said Loda, the amphibian attorney for the center. “Hopefully they will be protected.”

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Aquatics biologist Cody Edwards holds a juvenile boreal toadThursday, July 12, 2017, in the Monte Cristo Range. One of the main ways that researchers determine the health of boreal toad habitat is by looking for a good mix of tadpoles, juveniles and adult toads.

Among the interesting facts learned is how long some boreal toads, like “O’Shaughnessy,” can live.

“Even other areas that monitor boreal toads were under the impression that their max lifespan was maybe 8 or 10 years, up until we started tracking toads,” Broderius said. “So some of the work we’ve done here in the Northern Region of Utah has been instrumental in bringing that to light – they’re a much longer-lived species than we previously thought.”

And while toads might not be fluffy or fuzzy, they do become endearing for many humans who take the chance to get to know them.

“The more you know about a toad, the more respect you have for them,” Edwards said. “They might be small, but they are fighters.”

Help biologists track toads

Utah’s Hogle Zoo, with help from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Wild Utah, is recruiting citizen scientists to help track boreal toads throughout the state.

Volunteers will help the biologists find, tag, weigh and measure the toads. They’ll set out on around four trips each week until September, visiting sites like the West Fork of the Duchesne River, Maybird Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Silver Lake and Deer Creek in American Fork Canyon and sites around Strawberry Reservoir.

Overnight camping trips include Paunsaugunt Plateau near Bryce Canyon National Park, Thousand Lake Mountain, Boulder Mountains and sites within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.

The trips are free and depart from the zoo in Salt Lake City. Transport, equipment, lunch and trail snacks are provided.

For more information and to volunteer, contact Kayleigh Mullen at 801-584-1731 or kmullen@hoglezoo.org.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.