POWELL — The endangered Wyoming toad has a lot of friends. Once thought to be extinct, the last remaining population of the glacial relic was rediscovered under a boat by an inquisitive fisherman in 1985.
Now, plans are falling into place, piece by piece, to save the Cowboy State’s namesake amphibian.
After the remaining population of just 10 toads were captured and moved to safer environs, the beginning of an epic plan to save the species by state and federal officials and volunteers was hatched.
The story is very similar to black footed ferret recovery efforts, except the toad, and amphibians in general, don’t elicit the same emotional attachment by the general public to that of the cute and charismatic ferret.
However, just like the endangered ferret, saving the species requires conserving habitat, which is critical to many other wildlife species, and the mitigation of deadly diseases worsened by the lack of genetic diversity due to the low numbers of toads available for captive breeding.
Leading the efforts for the state to save the toad is Wyoming Game and Fish Department herpetological coordinator Wendy Estes-Zumpf.
The toad is just a small part of her responsibilities throughout the state, but one she has taken pride in doing since joining the department in 2016.
She said the water-loving toad used to be so common on the Laramie landscape that ranchers she has interviewed say the toads were everywhere.
“It’s really sad that it’s not the case anymore,” she said.
In attempting to save the species — the most endangered amphibian in America — she points out conservation efforts might not only save the state’s namesake amphibian, but the effort will benefit many other wildlife species.
“Because the toads require intact healthy wetland floodplain landscapes, efforts to improve the amount and the integrity of those wetland landscapes also simultaneously benefit a lot of other wetland-dependent species,” she said.
At first, efforts to save the toad meant securing habitat and raising tadpoles to be released. Despite releasing tens of thousands of tadpoles, few survived. For the past eight years Game and Fish biologists have joined the effort to breed the species in captivity, releasing the toads after they mature.
This past summer, approximately 800 Wyoming toads were released at four sites — one of several such releases in the past seven years.
Appointed to the Wyoming Toad Recovery Team in 2001 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Game and Fish joined the team of representatives from the University of Wyoming, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Laramie Rivers Conservation District, Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, private landowners and ranchers, USFWS Wyoming Field Office, National Fish Hatchery System, Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado and representatives from other organizations.
“The Wyoming Toad Recovery Team is an amazing group of people from across the United States dedicated to saving our local toad. We could not have brought the species back from the brink of extinction without the help of all the groups involved contributing their unique expertise to the effort,” EstesZumpf said after the release.
Private landowners have been essential to recovering the Wyoming toad.
Three of this year’s release sites are privately owned and have Safe Harbor Agreements where the recovery team can release toads.
The fourth release site was the Mortensen Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where the toad was rediscovered. Mortensen Lake was previously owned by Charlie Swanson, who sold the land to The Nature Conservancy to protect the toad.
Estes-Zumpf said the wild population of the Wyoming toad is not yet self-sustaining, but progress is being made.
Successful breeding in the wild is a critical step toward reaching self-sustaining populations. As of 2022, wild breeding has occurred at one or more reintroduction sites for seven consecutive years.
“We’ve come a long way with this recovery effort,” Estes-Zumpf said. “In the last 10 years, the team has developed a strategy for evaluating reintroduction techniques. There has been more research; we’ve seen an increase in the number of toads and we’ve definitely increased our knowledge of the ecology of the toads. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Despite the efforts, fatal diseases still threaten the species, especially deadly due to the lack of genetic diversity, she cautioned.
“It’s very likely low genetic diversity is impacting their ability to adapt to diseases on the landscape,” she said. “The amphibian chytrid fungus is the biggest concern in the Laramie basin.”
The fungus is an infectious fungal disease that can be fatal to amphibians. As the disease spread globally beginning in the 1970s (originating in southeast Asia, according to Amphibian Ark) many populations declined greatly and species became extinct. This pandemic served as a first precedent for the threat of infectious diseases directly on biodiversity.
The toads are highly susceptible to the fungus and suffer high mortality from contact, Estes-Zumpf said.
Habitat conservation is another huge concern.
Last week a huge step was taken to increase habitat protections. In support of protecting habitat critical for the toad, the Department of Interior announced Oct. 10 the establishment of the Wyoming Toad Conservation Area.
The area is located in the Laramie Plains, an arid highland at an elevation of approximately 8,000 feet. The plains extend along the upper basin of the Laramie River on the east side of the Medicine Bow Range.
“Nature is essential to the health, well-being and prosperity of every family and every community in America. National wildlife refuges help connect Americans to a diverse array of public lands, while also serving as a crucial means of protecting wildlife and conserving habitat,” said DOI Secretary Deb Haaland.
The refuge is the result of years of partner-driven work to conserve the Wyoming toad, including with the city of Laramie, Game and Fish and the Laramie Rivers Conservation District.
In 2017, the service completed a land protection plan that authorized the purchase of conservation easements and fee title lands from willing sellers in the area.
The Forest Service purchased 1,078 acres of land known as Bath Ranch from The Conservation Fund to officially establish the Wyoming Toad Conservation Area. It was purchased using funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports increased public access to and protection of federal public lands and waters and provides matching grants to state and tribal governments for the acquisition and development of public parks and other outdoor recreation sites.
“Those of us who have been working with the species for so long are really excited about the new reintroduction site because it has high quality floodplain habitat with water rights that are critical to sustaining those breeding ponds into the late summer,” Estes-Zumpf said.
Without floodplain habitat, tadpoles aren’t able to successfully metamorphose into mature toads.
The conservation area is the largest and highest-quality property on the landscape, she said.
“We’ve never had a reintroduction site that had all of these critical habitat elements all together,” she said.
The creation of protected habitat for the toad doubles as a new public access area — a priority for the Department of Interior.
In September, it announced more than $40.6 million in grants through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to support land acquisition and conservation planning projects on over 7,200 acres of habitat for 65 listed and at-risk species.
Service Director Martha Williams said the Endangered Species Act continues to make a difference with funding through grants to state and territorial fish and wildlife agencies and their partners in the conservation of our nation’s most imperiled species and their habitats.
“Locally led conservation efforts provide a lasting impact on our efforts to protect crucial wildlife habitat for threatened, endangered and priority species while prioritizing recreational access,” Williams said at last week’s announcement.
The newly purchased haven for the Wyoming toad brings the total of units in the National Wildlife Refuge System to 570; they are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The announcement comes as the nation celebrated National Wildlife Refuge Week, which commemorates the important role the Refuge System plays in providing vital habitat for wildlife species, offering outdoor recreation access to the public, and bolstering climate resilience across the country.
National wildlife refuges contribute $3.2 billion per year into local economies and support more than 41,000 jobs, according to the Forest Service’s report Banking on Nature.
Visits to wildlife refuges have doubled in the last 10 years, reaching 67 million visits in 2022.
The Wyoming toad isn’t the only amphibian in the state that is concerning wildlife biologists.
The western toad (also called the boreal toad) is found in southern and western mountain ranges of Wyoming, and those in the southern part of the state are highly susceptible to the fungus.
“It’s an interesting dynamic going on, but at least down here in southern Wyoming, we are down to basically three sites that have breeding every couple of years,” Estes-Zumpf said.