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Wildlife

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.

Releases

“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.”

Overcoming challenges

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.

New strategy

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.

Landowner impacts

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.”

Goals

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – “Animals migrate to make a better living off their landscape,” said Wyoming Fish and Game Department (WGFD) Cooperative Unit Leader Matt Kauffmann.

Kauffman, along with a panel of leading professionals, addressed residents of Casper and surrounding areas in regards to the importance of designated migration corridors at one of six statewide forums hosted by WGFD on Feb. 11. 

Why animals migrate 

“It’s not new information that animals migrate in the winter to avoid deep snow and harsh conditions,” Kauffman noted. 

“Smaller animals, such as pronghorn, begin their migration earlier due to a lighter tolerance for deep snow, whereas larger animals, such as moose and elk, can tolerate deeper snow and migrate later in the season,” according to Kauffman.

   He explained animals don’t necessarily beeline to their destination. Instead they take their time, sometimes up to two months, to migrate north or south for the winter. He estimated animals spend up to one-third of the year en route to their summer or winter habitats, making the route a habitat itself. 

Surfing the green wave

Kauffman described the slow migration of animals as “surfing the green wave.”

“Animals want to eat plants at the early stage of their growth, which is typically in the spring,” Kauffman said. “The early stages of growth, when plants are lower in fiber and higher in protein, is ideal because the plant is more easily digestible.”

“When animals time their migration correctly, they can expose themselves to spring-like, low-fiber plants for a longer period of time,” Kauffman explained. “Those who surf well have a higher percentage of body fat going into the winter and are more likely to survive.”

He went on to explain that animals who migrate a longer distance will also have higher stores of body fat in comparison to those who migrate shorter distances.

How do they know

Kauffman explained it was once a hotly debated question as to whether mammals innately know to migrate or if they learn the process and routes from their parents. 

“There was a study done with translocated Bighorn sheep,” Kauffman said. “The study found sheep didn’t migrate, which proves this is a learned behavior passed on to each generation.”

He explained due to the learned nature of migratory behavior, it can take anywhere from decades to centuries for a species to learn how to migrate. 

“When we lose a species in an area, all the knowledge is lost, too,” Kauffman commented. “This knowledge is accumulated over generations of learning to make the best of a landscape.” 

Charting migrations 

Due to advanced technology, animals can now be collared and tracked to determine their migration routes and assist managing agencies in determining designated migration corridors, according to WGFD Biologist Doug Brimeyer.

Brimeyer provided data for the Baggs, Platte Valley and Sublette mule deer migration corridors to attendees of the forum. 

Brimeyer noted Baggs had 118 individual mule deer collared and 298 seasonal migrations. Platte Valley featured 42 collared deer and 120 seasonal migrations, while Sublette had 131 collared deer and 319 seasonal migrations.

“We use the best technology we have available to us, as well as historic data, to determine migration routes and subsequently designate corridors,” said Brimeyer. 

In an effort to include the community, outreach efforts were made in areas affected by the migration corridors. 

“We host community meetings, send e-mails, post news releases and communicate with federal partners and landowners,” Brimeyer explained.  

Callie Hanson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – During a late-April meeting of the Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep and Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group, domestic sheep producers and Bighorn sheep advocates discussed the challenges of working together in light of the conflicts emerging in the industry.

“We’ve all been engaged in this effort for a long time,” said Kevin Hurley of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. “We have spent 14 years with a plan that does the most for the Bighorn sheep and still will keep a viable domestic sheep industry.”

Regardless, there is still question as to where the group would go next.

Analysis

One question raised by producers was the question of viability analysis and using data. 

“When we are dealing with a species not listed on the endangered species list, what is the case law history for the Forest Service to establish population objection for species that are clearly within the purview of the state of Wyoming?” asked Larry Hicks, Wyoming Senator for Senate District 11. “How does Forest Service conduct an analysis when it is clearly the decision of the state?”

Chris Iverson of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Region Four commented that while the USFS recognizes the management responsibility of states, they also must comply with the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).

“We find our challenge in trying to comply with NFMA, which says we must maintain diversity in plant and animal communities and maintain viable populations of vertebrate species,” Iverson noted. “We generally use a qualitative analysis, and if we get a rich data set, we can do a formal quantitative population of viability analyses.”

Qualitative analysis

On national forests, Iverson said that 95 percent of the species they are responsible for do not have significant population data for quantitative analysis, making qualitative analysis necessary. 

“We are not setting numeric, specific population objectives,” he explained. “We look at habitat, ranges and age classes of forest conditions. We look at a qualitative analyses of what kind of habitat is necessary for populations.”

However, Hicks noted concern with the qualitative analysis, particularly when it is used to management options, questioning the level at which the USFS is required to utilize good science.

Iverson noted that the USFS is bound to use the best available science when making decisions and deciding which management options to use.

“A lot of the decisions that our forest supervisors will be faced with are risk management,” he explained. “The notion of flexibility is important.”

He provided the example of the Bighorn sheep herds in the Laramie and Douglas Peak areas. In that area, two of the three herds were determined necessary for viability, but the third herd was not determined to be necessary for a viable populations, largely based on qualitative data. 

“We did not have a lot of quantitative data other than population sizes, so our judgment was done qualitatively,” Iverson said. “Risk management will continue in these situations.”

Viability and risk

The underlying concern, however, is the definition of viability and risk.

“What level of risk of transmission is acceptable?” asked Eric Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “If we have one transmission, that can be it for viability. How can we say any risk is ok?”

“That is part of the risk management,” Iverson commented. “How do we manage the risk, and what is an acceptable level of risk? The forest superintendent makes the decision and chooses to accept the level of risk.”

Wyo plan

At the core of comments received from meeting attendees, the idea that the Wyoming Bighorn Sheep Domestic Sheep Working Group plan was strongly supported by most. 

“If we don’t identify what the real problems are, we aren’t going to come up with a solution,” said Hicks. “The trouble is the regulatory uncertainty from federal land use plans and litigation.”

“This coalition needs to find the solutions,” he continued. “If we don’t identify the problem, we fall right into a loss-win scenario.”

Strength in the Wyoming plan to deal with Bighorn and domestic sheep interaction was seen by a variety of stakeholders.

“The Wyoming plan is the leverage we hold,” said Jim Collins, a Thermopolis farmer. 

However, others recognized that, while the document is signed by Wyoming regulatory agencies, it has no statutory authority.

Moving forward

“If we think proactively and start driving these positions, we have tremendous leverage,” Hicks said. “As a group, we need to focus on this plan.”

Hicks further advised that Governor Matt Mead should be approached to support the plan.

“It might be well worth taking the key components of the plan and synthesizing it for the Governor,” Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna commented.

For the immediate future, Hicks suggested that cooperating or coordinating agency status be pursued by the state to allow the state a seat at the table in developing planning. 

“This conversation is helpful,” said Jessica Crowder of Governor Mead’s Office. “The Governor is interested in thoughtful ideas that this group can bring forward.”

Ryan McConnaughey of Cynthia Lummis’ Office also commented that the plans are very useful for Congressman Lummis, both in showing practical efforts toward on-the-ground conservation and in cooperative efforts. 

The result was the formation of a committee, consisting of Hicks, Hurley and representatives from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming Livestock Board, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, to summarize the group’s plan and look at opportunities going forward. 

The subcommittee’s work will be presented during the working group’s next meeting, tentatively set for August.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

SIDEBAR:
Producer-driven solutions

To maintain sustainable ranges, attendees of the April Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep and Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group meeting suggested solutions to interactions. 

Some producers suggested and supported the idea of dual use on allotments.

“Common use by dual species wouldn’t be a change,” said Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “It works well for private landowners, and BLM permittees do it on their permits. It is more difficult if the ownership isn’t the same.”
Magagna noted that if common use by two species under two permittees was a possibility, it must be a voluntary agreement, rather than a forced action.

Sheep producers further commented, “The conversation is all about closure and cuts. That is what we are worried about. We want to hear that there won’t be closure or cuts.”

Grazing flexibility and use of vacant allotments were also targeted as potential options. 

“We need to look at management options, and I don’t anticipate any immediate or overnight decisions,” Iverson said. “We are looking at good faith efforts to maintain domestic sheep and viable Bighorn sheep populations.”

“We would ask U.S. Forest Service to keep as many animal unit months viable as possible,” producer Mary Thoman commented.

 

A lawsuit regarding bighorn and domestic sheep on the Medicine Bow National Forest would have big implications for agriculture, according to Wyoming Senator Larry Hicks, who represents Albany and Carbon counties in Senate District 11. 

In early April, the Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA) filed suit in U.S. District Court over whether special protection should be provided for the handful of bighorn sheep in the Sierra Madre Range near Encampment.

“They’re looking for a Payette-level decision in the state of Wyoming,” says Hicks, noting that the BCA attorney who filed the suit is a staff attorney for Western Watersheds Project. 

After a court decision regarding the Payette National Forest in Idaho, a new management plan phased out domestic sheep grazing on 70,000 acres of bighorn sheep habitat.

According to Hicks, this lawsuit could undo the progress made by the Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep/Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group, which has worked collaboratively since 2000 to identify specific issues and locations around Wyoming that provide temporal and physical separation between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep, while still allowing domestic sheep grazing to occur on national forest and BLM grazing allotments.

“The state of Wyoming needs to vigorously defend Wyoming’s plan,” says Hicks, mentioning the management strategy that working group has developed. 

Legislative proposal

As part of the solution to the BCA lawsuit, Hicks proposes a bill, which he introduced to the Joint Ag Committee at its meeting in Lander in early May. 

“In the worst case scenario, the federal court would side with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and this bill would require the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to remove those few bighorn sheep on the forest in that area,” explains Hicks. “Under this scenario, it’s a moot issue – there’s no more bighorn sheep with which to address the viability issue.”

He continues that, since the bighorn sheep are the property of the state, the WGFD routinely relocates sheep, and they could be taken to Sybile Canyon. Also, he says WGFD Director Scott Talbott has said the bighorns could be removed through licensed hunters, which is within the state’s purview. 

WFGD opinion

“The Game and Fish Department and the Commission are solidly behind the state’s domestic sheep/wild sheep plan,” says WGFD Deputy Director John Emmerich. “We’ve been involved for 12 years, and we strongly support the current management for the Medicine Bow National Forest, which identifies it as a low priority, non-core population that doesn’t require the typical levels of protection we see in other places. If those sheep get exposed and we lose them, that’s the way it goes with that sheep herd.”

Emmerich says that, in the core areas for bighorn sheep, the WGFD does everything it can to protect intermingling with domestic sheep, like in the northern portion of the Shoshone National Forest. 

“This is a significant issue, and we have a model other states are looking at in terms of how to manage this conflict that’s being debated across the West,” says Emmerich. “I think Wyoming’s plan is the way to do it, with a holistic look across the state and primary areas where wild sheep are and where we prevent intermingling, and other areas where domestic sheep take precedence.”

‘The stakes are high’

“If collaboration between historic combatants can’t work in Wyoming, where we have a plan and everybody has the opportunity for input, then I don’t know what will. BCA comes to every meeting and sits at the table. If this doesn’t work, what’s the option? To lawyer up and continue to sue and let the fed government manage our wildlife and agriculture. The stakes are high,” says Hicks. 

“This is the test case. If they’re successful, I can guarantee we’ll see a similar attempt on every national forest in the state that has domestic sheep grazing,” says Hicks. “Western Watersheds Projects’ mission is to eliminate livestock grazing.”

Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Meeting focuses on sheep issues
A meeting scheduled for May 31 in Casper will discuss where the state of Wyoming is vulnerable, from a Payette level and from the bighorn sheep and domestic sheep perspectives. The meeting will focus on the lawsuit filed by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance regarding bighorn sheep on the Medicine Bow National Forest.

“What resources and information do we need to collect in the state if the litigation does move forward, and we’re not successful in defending Wyoming’s plan?” asks Wyoming Senator Larry Hicks, mentioning better distribution of information on bighorn sheep that could better put the state of Wyoming in position to protect agriculture and the statewide management plan. “We’ve reintroduced two bighorn sheep herds, and they’ve been successful. The ramifications of this lawsuit are not just for agriculture, but they’re bad news for bighorn sheep, also.”

Hicks says the lawsuit is an “extreme frustration” for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which continues to have organizations try to manage Wyoming’s wildlife through the federal court system.

“Will we continue to look at our plans and how the state, through the Game and Fish and collaborative processes, wants to manage wildlife, or will we continue to let litigious organizations try to manage our wildlife?” asks Hicks.

The WWGA perspective
According to Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Vice President Bryce Reece, there are three remaining sheep operations that use the Medicine Bow National Forest.

“At one time there were 250,000 head of sheep that went on that forest every summer. Now there are less than 10,000, and for this group, that’s too many,” says Reece of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “We are proud of the Wyoming bighorn sheep management plan, and it’s being held up as a model around the state, in not only bighorn and domestic sheep, but all other things with potential conflicts.”

“If we lose this lawsuit, one particular operation is done, because they have nowhere to go. They have the fifth generation on the ranch right now, and they want to expand,” says Reece. 

Reece says that, because of the Wyoming plan, he goes to Wyoming Game and Fish Department meetings and is able to support the introduction of bighorn sheep, if it’s done under the Wyoming plan.

“It’s likely the Wyoming Wool Growers Association and the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation will join together to intervene in this lawsuit, and that’s never happened before,” says Reece.

At the conclusion of the second comment period for the Black-footed Ferret Draft Recovery Plan, Wyoming groups continue to express concern for the plan.

“We are concerned about all of these efforts continuing to aggressively move forward, absent the statewide 10(j) designation,” said Wyoming Association of conservation Districts (WACD) Executive Director Bobbie Frank. 

Wyoming Weed and Pest Coordinator Slade Franklin continued, “The Wyoming Weed and Pest Council’s (WWPC) position on the Recovery Plan, is similar to the position they took on the proposed Black-footed ferret Safe Harbor Agreement.  These programs and plans should be delayed and efforts should instead focus on finalizing the statewide 10(j) designation for the black footed ferret.”

10(j) protection

The lack of a 10(j) designation for black-footed ferrets in the state continues to concern Wyoming groups and landowners because of the lack of protection on public lands. 

Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act provides for exceptions to the act for actions that would otherwise be prohibited. Section 10(j) allows for the Secretary of the Department of the Interior to designate certain reintroduced populations established outside the species’ current range, but within its historical range, as experimental populations.

After Wyoming Governor Matt Mead contacted the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) requesting the 10(j) designation, the FWS responded with a letter indicating plans to develop a 10(j) rule.

In the March 6 letter, the FWS wrote, “We will initiate development of a complementary statewide 10(j) ‘experimental and non-essential’ rule for Wyoming, in collaboration with the Department.”

While the letter noted FWS’ commitment to developing the rule and work with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, it provided no timeline or direction moving forward. 

Threats

The WWPC also remarked that urbanization is listed as a minimal threat to the disappearance of Black-footed ferret habitat. 

“The WWPC requests that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revisit the issue of urbanization in the Recovery Plan and the threat it represents to black-footed ferret recovery,” reads the group’s comment letter.

In addition, the status of anticoagulant pesticides, such as Rozol and Kaput-D, as a high magnitude, imminent threat at ferret recovery sites also proved to be concerning for the group.

Due to label restriction by the Environmental Protection Agency, the WWPC commented that the potential for ferrets to be exposed to anticoagulant pesticides at recovery sites is slim to non-existent and would likely constitute a violation of federal and state pesticide laws. 

Further, the Council added that the FWS has documented that the primary reason for failure of some recovery sites has been sylvatic plague, but the draft plan marks prairie dog poising as the highest recovery threat, creating inconsistency.

The WWPC, as a result, requested data and specific information on site failure due to poisoning with anticoagulants. 

Other concerns

Additionally, the lack of diversified representation on the team working to implement black-footed ferret recovery was marked as a concern held by the WWPC.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ‘solicited extensive partner review from the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team’ in the development of this draft plan,” noted the WWPC. “The team, as defined by blackfootedferret.org is ‘representatives from federal, state and tribal governments, zoos, private landowners and nonprofit organizations.’”

Yet the Implementation Team, according to the WWPC, lacks involvement and perspective from private landowners and local pest regulators with insight on the management of prairie dog populations. 

“We find it difficult to believe the committee can adequately address prairie dog management without input from those who implement regulatory programs on a state or private level,” they added.

“Private landowner and local government support and participation are integral to ferret recovery efforts,” said WACD in their comments.

Additionally, WACD continued, “Throughout the document, there is a lack of mention in regard to coordination with local governments.”

Inconsistencies

Further, the WWPC targeted inconsistencies in the plan.

In noticing increasing prairie dog numbers, the group expressed concern with the notion presented by the FWS that prairie dog numbers may be the most limiting factor to ferret recovery. Data, however, show that prairie dog populations have continued to increase.

Finally, in meeting recovery goals, the WWPC expressed apprehension as to the FWS plan to adequately monitor ferret populations and asked for clarification as to how monitoring would be accomplished to ensure recovery goals are achieved.

On the plan as a whole, the WWPC commented, “We believe a recovery plan that recognizes private landowner rights and needs and a multiple use management philosophy will provide the groundwork needed to make any recovery plan successful.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.