Fire on a Wyoming Refuge Saves a Toad
"I never thought I'd be burning prairie to help a toad," Felix Valdez said last spring. But that's exactly what he was doing.
Valdez, a U.S. Forest Service fire management officer, is working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service managers and biologists, the multi-agency Wyoming Toad Recovery Team, and other partners at Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming, to conserve the last known population of the Wyoming toad.
The Wyoming toad, now the most endangered amphibian in North America, once flourished in the wetlands and rivers of southeastern Wyoming. By the mid-1970s, the population was declining due to insecticide use, climate change, agricultural practices, predation and disease. In 1984, the toad was listed under the Endangered Species Act, and in 1993, The Nature Conservancy helped establish the refuge to protect the species and it is closed to protect the toad.
In April 2012, Valdez was the burn boss for a prescribed burn designed to give the native toad what it needs to survive: water and warmth. Studies show the Wyoming toad requires pockets of warm, shallow water to breed. Historically, livestock grazing kept vegetation in check, allowing plenty of sunlight to warm the waters. Over time, grazing declined, requiring prescribed fires to curb the plant growth. Prescribed fire, along with prescribed grazing, is part of a collaborative recovery plan to achieve self-sustaining populations and ultimately delist the species.
Another part of the recovery plan includes a captive breeding program at Saratoga National Fish Hatchery in Wyoming as well as the University of Wyoming's Red Buttes Biological Lab, and zoos in Toledo, OH; Omaha, NE; St Louis, MO; New York City (Central Park); Detroit, MI; Colorado Springs, CO; and Philadelphia, PA. To date, almost 40,000 tadpoles and toadlets have been released into the wild. Researchers continue to study the toad's habitat requirements and the best strategies for releasing captive tadpoles and toadlets.
While the toad has been extirpated from much of its historic habitat and is still a federally endangered species, there is great hope for the species' future thanks to these ongoing coordinated conservation efforts.