How many teenagers do you know who get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday and go to school by choice? Jason Wurtz is one. The senior–to–be at Pahranagat Valley High School in Alamo, NV, volunteers his free time taking care of some rare amphibians, and he often gets up early to do it.

Several springs at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge near Alamo serve as a southern stronghold for northern leopard frogs. The population of the small, native frogs in the western United States is declining across much of their historical range. However, the frogs at the refuge are doing well. With Wurtz’s help over the past three years and with the support of science teacher Wesley Wilson, they are expanding their population and the number of sites they occupy.

How is Wurtz contributing to the amphibians’ well–being? He keeps them in school.

Each February, as the frogs’ breeding season approaches, Wurtz prepares aquariums housed in the high school’s agriculture classroom. The aquariums and associated supplies are furnished by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through Pahranagat Refuge.

When the male leopard frogs begin serenading the females at the refuge, Wurtz knows it won’t be long before egg masses can be found in the springs. When at least three leopard frog egg masses are located, usually in early March, a refuge biologist or Wurtz collects a portion of one of the masses. The freshly laid eggs are delivered to the school, where Wurtz places them in an aquarium and dotes over them like a father–to–be.

Within days the eggs hatch into tadpoles, which require daily care and feeding. Wurtz watches over the newborns. He regularly checks the water quality, monitors water temperature and provides the tadpoles with a daily diet of special flaked food that helps them grow and remain healthy.

By late June or early July, the tadpoles become inch–long froglets, and Wurtz must bid them farewell. The froglets are returned to Pahranagat Refuge and released into the wild at one of the springs, hopefully growing to maturity and starting additional populations. Adults—which are smooth–skinned, green, brown or sometimes yellow–green and covered with large, oval dark spots— range from 2 to 4.5 inches in length and live five or more years.

Protection From Predators

Captive rearing provides protection from the many predators in nature that typically consume most of each year’s tadpoles. Last summer, the froglets were released into a small, isolated spring that did not have leopard frogs and was not plagued with predatory fish or non–native bullfrogs that would eat the froglets.

Introductions of captive–reared northern leopard frogs at the refuge over the past two years resulted in the establishment of a fourth population at a separate spring site. That particular population is now self–sustaining. Wurtz’s contributions to this effort have been critical.

Wurtz, who is a Nevada Conservation Corps intern this summer at Pahranagat Refuge, says he will continue rearing the froglets next year. He hopes to pass along the project to another student when he graduates in spring 2014. For their part, staff members at Pahranagat Refuge gladly take the eggs to school to ensure that northern leopard frogs continue to prosper in the Pahranagat Valley.

Darrell Freeman is a wildlife biologist— until recently at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, NV, and now at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NV.