By Ryan Moehring
Scott Talbott, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, grew up in the Laramie Plains in the southeastern part of the state. When he was a child in the 1960s his mother would make him take his boots off before coming in the house at night. When he left for school the next morning, he remembers having to dump Wyoming toads out of his boots before putting them on.
“They were everywhere,” he says.
Being glacial relicts, Wyoming toads and their ancestors had been everywhere in the Laramie River Basin for millennia.
That changed suddenly in the 1970s. The Wyoming toad population crashed. Only 10 individuals were known to exist in
the wild. Insecticides, disease, climatic changes, increased predation and habitat degradation all have been theorized as the culprit, but no single cause has been identified. In 1984, the toad was listed
as an endangered species. In 2011, more than 20 years after Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established to support the toad and despite two decades of reintroducing captive-bred toads and tadpoles into the wild, a refuge survey found only one wild toad.
Since then, there has been a remarkable turnaround. Surveys in 2015 counted a whopping 1,286 Wyoming toads in the wild at or near the 1,776-acre Mortenson Lake Refuge.
“We have eliminated the immediate risk of extinction. Now we have a vibrant captive population, and we're trying to turn that into a vibrant wild population,” Doug Keinath, a senior zoologist with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, says in a recent National Geographic video.
“The Wyoming toad is found only in the Laramie Plains of Wyoming. It's found nowhere else in the world,” Mortenson Lake Refuge acting manager Michael Dixon says in the same video. “It has the maybe unfortunate distinction of being one of the most endangered amphibians in North America.”
Recent years have breathed new life into the Wyoming toad recovery program.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wyoming Ecological Services office, eight zoos, the University of Wyoming, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and private landowners are working on the complex task of captive-breeding toads and reintroducing them into the wild.
An $800,000 Cooperative Recovery Initiative grant helped refocus efforts
on the primary obstacles to recovery.
The grant supported invasive vegetation management techniques, treatment of the lethal fungal disease chytridiomycosis and new radio telemetry monitoring protocols. Construction of outdoor enclosures that allow for “soft releases” also took place, letting tadpoles and toads safely mature in natural environments before full release. Finally, a significant expansion of Saratoga National Fish Hatchery is enabling that Wyoming facility to increase the number of toads it breeds.
“There is a lot of effort we're putting into keeping this toad on the landscape because it declined so far so fast right before our eyes,” Dixon says in the video.
Now, for the first time in decades, the idea of recovery seems possible. A revised recovery plan, released last summer,
calls for a minimum of five self-sustaining populations that persist for at least seven years before the species can be delisted. Given the refuge habitat, safe harbor agreements with private landowners
and the possibility of a Wyoming toad conservation area on the horizon, the program might have the reintroduction sites needed to establish those populations.
Ryan Moehring is a public affairs specialist at the Mountain-Prairie Region office in Lakewood, CO.