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Chiricahua Leopard Frogs Get a Head Start in Arizona
by Janice Castro
Photo Credit: USFWS
Going out of business doesn't usually coincide with a great success story. But Shaula Hedwall and colleagues at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) hope to eventually work the Phoenix Zoo's Chiricahua leopard frog head-start program out of business. According to Hedwall, a senior biologist in the Service's Arizona Ecological Services Field Office in Flagstaff, doing so would mean the federally threatened amphibian was one step closer toward recovery.
Since 1995, the Phoenix Zoo has supported Chiricahua leopard frog recovery by giving these frogs a better chance for survival in the wild. The Zoo's Conservation Center has the facilities to give these frogs a head-start by hatching egg masses brought in from the wild, raising the tadpoles in the safety of the lab—away from predators and disease. Improving the survival of an egg mass from an average of five percent in the wild to an average of 60 percent at the Zoo has meant many more frogs available for repopulation into their range.
In 2005, biologists from the Service and Arizona Game and Fish discovered that a population of Chiricahua leopard frogs (Lithobates chiricahuensis) in Yavapai County had declined to a precariously low number, with fewer than 10 individuals remaining. This population was not only extremely isolated, but was also at the northwestern-most part of the species' range. The loss of this populations' unique genetics would be a tremendous loss for the species. Hedwall took to the Arizona wilderness to capture these last surviving frogs for the Phoenix Zoo's successful head-start program.
The four frogs Hedwall managed to capture in the wild successfully bred and produced egg masses at the Zoo. Unfortunately, the only female of the four frogs was old with cataracts. The decision was made to introduce two females from a nearby population in Gila County to these males. Genetic studies conducted by the University of Arizona showed that the genetics of the two populations were similar.
There are now thousands of frogs from the head-start program for this Yavapai population living in the wild. The prospects for the success of these threatened frogs are so great that the head-starting program is no longer necessary for the survival of this population. The Zoo is now able to dedicate its valuable space and resources to bolster other threatened populations in the Grand Canyon State.
The success achieved for this population of Chiricahua leopard frogs would not have been possible without the seamless partnership between the Service, Arizona Game and Fish, the Phoenix Zoo, and the U.S. Forest Service. The dedication of these government and private organizations, as well as the sensitivity and understanding shown by the Ward Ranch, which is the grazing permittee in the area, is an outstanding example of the importance of partnerships in the success of the Endangered Species Act.
Janice Castro is a volunteer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Arizona Ecological Services Office.
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