Albany County landowners partner with FWS in Wyoming toad releases
Laramie – At the beginning of June, a second release of 900 endangered Wyoming toads occurred at five different properties in Albany County.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Fish and Wildlife Biologist Elizabeth Mack explains the history of recovery efforts and recent successes of the program.
Back from extinction
Mack explains the Wyoming toad is unique because the only location it is found in the world is Albany County.
“Unfortunately, this also means it’s one of the most endangered amphibians in North America,” she says.
The toads were very prolific in the Laramie area until the 1970s, which is when researchers noticed the population beginning to decline.
“By the 1980s, the species had crashed,” Mack comments. “It was presumed extinct in the wild until a surviving population was discovered at Mortenson Lake, a private fishing club, in 1987.”
When the Mortenson Lake population declined, the remaining toads were placed in captivity in the 1990s, and researchers began searching for the cause of the massive decline.
“We now know the main factor leading to the species’ decline is a disease called chytridiomycosis, which is caused by the chytrid fungus,” she explains.
“FWS, in partnership with the Wyoming Toad Species Survival Plan, began releasing tadpoles in the 1990s,” explains Mack.
However, the releases were not successful in establishing new populations.
“Because of this, we decided to try releasing full-grown adult toads with the hope of them having higher survival than the tadpoles,” she comments.
Mack’s team released approximately 900 adult toads in 2016, and during the following summer, biologists found evidence of four wild breeding events at two separate reintroduction sites, which were likely due to the adult reintroductions.
“We had never seen this much breeding success in the wild before,” Mack explains. “We did another adult release in May 2017, and we’ve already documented two more wild breeding events.”
According to Mack, the recovery team had to overcome multiple challenges with the program, including low survival rates, a small number of reintroduction sites and sporadic funding, as well as the presence of the chytrid fungus in the natural habitat.
Regardless, Mack notes, “We have really started to gain momentum towards our goal of recovering the toad.”
She continues, “There are more toads on the ground than ever before, and they’re breeding in the wild.”
Breeding in the wild is critical to removing the toad from the endangered species list, as the toads must have five self-sustaining population in the wild to warrant delisting, she explains.
“We also now have five reintroduction sites, which were made possible through new partnerships with private landowners, the Buford Foundation and the University of Wyoming,” says Mack.
After analyzing the results from the 2016 release, Mack states the team was able to adjust their strategy to be more successful.
“Results from monitoring adult toads in 2016 let us know that soft release enclosures are very important for increasing on-site retention of adults,” she says.
Mack explains, “For a soft-release, we place a certain number of toads in a large above-ground cage for three days, so they can acclimate to their environment before we let them loose.”
The soft release enclosures were used at all five reintroduction sites in 2017, and the team hopes to increase the number of enclosures in coming years.
“Currently, we only have the capacity to soft-release about 30 percent of the adult toads,” Mack comments.
All landowners involved in the project willingly volunteer and signed a Safe Harbor Agreement with the Laramie Rivers Conservation District and FWS, says Mack.
“We had several private landowners join in the fun and participate in this year’s release,” she comments. “This means they actually had the chance to carry and release the toads onto their own properties.”
She notes there are no restrictions on land management for any landowners enrolled in the agreement and no penalties for unintentionally killing a toad during normal operation such as haying or grazing under the Safe Harbor Agreement.
“However, the landowners are asked to work with biologists from FWS to reduce the impacts their land management practices may have on the success of reintroductions, or they may voluntarily engage in some habitat enhancements on their property,” Mack stated.
She continued, “For instance, FWS has helped build new ponds on some private properties to create more toad habitat.”
Looking ahead, Mack explains their team has numerous goals to increase Wyoming toad populations.
“Our goals for the future include increasing the number of toads we can soft-release, gaining new reintroduction sites and finding a way to combat chytrid fungus in the wild,” she says.
Further research is needed to continue improving their rehabilitation efforts, says Mack.
“We also hope to fund more research on the toad, so we can better understand its habitat needs and behavior, which will help us meet our goals more strategically,” comments Mack.
She concludes, “Ultimately, our main goal is to delist the toad from the endangered species list.”
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.