On the shore next to the Buford Ranch pond in early June, clear plastic tubs sit in stacks with little ordinary-looking, brown speckled toads visible inside climbing the walls, trying to escape. And escape is exactly what a crowd of people—private landowners, environmental groups and federal and state agencies—have all gathered here today to help the toads do.
The Buford Ranch pond is barely more than a puddle on the Laramie plains, but it happens to be critical habitat for the Wyoming toad. Everyone is here today to release over 900 of these endangered critters, which is commonly considered one of the most endangered amphibian in North America.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Technician Elizabeth Mack passes out latex gloves and instructions.
“All you have to do is open the tub and very gently take the toad and set it on the ground,” Mack tells the crowd.
“But don't step on it!” someone hollers.
“And don’t step on it!” she reiterates.
After that crash course in setting an almost extinct species free in the wild, the crowd sets out to three separate release areas: a private ranch across the highway, the Mortensen Lake National Wildlife Refuge where the last of the toad population was discovered, and this small pond, owned by the Buford Foundation, an environmental education organization.
People walk out into the marsh and Mack opens one of the tubs. Five-year-old Lettie Newman peers in.
“Oh, they're so excited!” she squeals. “I've never seen a toad hop so crazy before!
The toads do hop pretty crazy. That's because they were bred in captivity at a fish hatchery in Saratoga, and this is their first encounter with the big wide world. Even before their decline, they only existed in the Laramie Basin. But the hope is after today they’ll re-populate the area.
With gloved hands, we all begin scooping toads and placing them gently in the mud and grass. One makes a dash for the water and swims off.
“He’s got a really nice frog kick,” my dad, Jay, the incorrigible punner says. “Or toad kick, if you will.”
Technically, though, this isn’t the first time Fish and Wildlife have released Wyoming toads. Fish and Aquatic Conservation Director Greg Gerlich says it is the first time they've raised them to adulthood first.
“They've stocked many, many thousands of tadpoles over a long period of time and they've had very low success,” Gerlich says.
He says tadpoles didn’t make it because these toads are a very sensitive species, and they often end up the canary in the coal mine for environmental threats.
LISTEN TO THE SOUND OF WYOMING TOADS
“They're a very clear indicator species of things that are going on in the environment,” he says. “Pesticides have an easy transport through amphibian skin. They have very permeable skin.” Pesticides, he explains, like those used in agriculture or to kill mosquitos.
Among the crowd are a few “old toaders,” as everyone calls them, people who've been studying these little guys for decades. It was University of Wyoming Zoology Professor Bill Gern who tagged along with the late great amphibian biologist George Baxter in search of the toad.
“So in the spring of 1980, George and I started going to his favorite haunts to try to find toads and we couldn't,” Gern says. “And he became very puzzled at that time. He said, well, they used be everywhere. And we couldn't find them anywhere.”
Gern says the toad used to be so common ranchers found them in their cowboy boots.
“We walked the entire length of the Big Laramie [River] from, basically, Woods Landing to town and never found them. So it was very clear that they had disappeared.”
A fisherman eventually found some on Mortensen Lake. The Fish and Wildlife rounded up the last 300 toads there and put them all in captivity, and that's when the search for what was killing them began.
“They found that these toads were dying of a fungus infection,” Gern says. “And that was big news.”
The chytrid fungus to be exact, an infection wiping out amphibians, worldwide. But pesticides and modern irrigation methods likely whittled their numbers down as well.
Across the highway, rancher and retired Fish and Wildlife employee Fred Lindsay released 300 toads on his land today, too. He says he uses old fashioned flood irrigation that spreads out shallow water among willows. Perfect for Wyoming toads.
“We have at times kept some of the irrigation waters flowing longer than we normally would,” Lindsay says. “And it pushes haying back just a little bit but that's okay, that's okay.”
Lindsay says the Wyoming toad’s ideal habitat is also ideal ranchland, which means to bring them back they’ll have to thrive on private land.
“That's where people homesteaded and that's where people raised their cattle in the winter and fed them in the winter,” Lindsay says. “And it really means that the agencies have got to work with private landowners.”
Lindsay says he knows lots of landowners worry that when you have an endangered species on your property, the feds will butt in on your business. He hasn’t had that problem.
“We signed what's called a safe harbor agreement,” he says. “And, basically, what that means is during normal operations, if we were to run over a toad or step on a toad, we wouldn't go to federal prison.”
After today, Lindsay looks forward to hearing the sound of Wyoming toads breeding on his land, just one of many species he hosts on his land
Birds and toads. And moose and deer...,” he says.
I heard sandhill cranes too,” I said.
“Oh yes, they're probably down there walking out as we speak, looking for toads to eat,” he says and we all laugh. “I'm sure they get some. You know, but what the heck, the tough ones survive.”
And with every single one of those 900 toads embedded with a tracking chip, Fish and Wildlife will be able to keep a very close eye on just how many do survive.