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Searching for toads

Bob Berwyn
Special to the DailyIn Colorado, these toads are listed as a threatened species, and the federal government is due to decide on its status under the Endangered Species Act by the end of the summer.

BRECKENRIDGE – It’s midnight. My eyeballs are tired and there’s a spongy layer of muck oozing around the bottom of my boots. After spending most of the afternoon and a good part of the night intently scanning the bogs and bushes of Cucumber Gulch for signs of Boreal toads, I’m ready for a hot bath. And I’m wondering why a toad would choose to live in this high mountain environment to begin with. Even now, near the beginning of summer, temperatures at ground level can drop to freezing almost any night.Toads, along with the rest of their amphibian cousins, are ectothermic; once called cold-blooded, they don’t generate their own body heat, but depend on the external environment to regulate their temperature. Prime habitat for amphibians is in the steamy jungles of tropical latitudes – Costa Rica and Panama, for example, where hundreds of species thrive. As you move north or climb in elevation, the amount of difference species drops at a steady rate. Above 9,000 feet, Boreal toads and tiger salamanders are the only ones left – remarkable amphibians adapted to surviving long, cold winters and able to reproduce quickly during the few ice-free months of summer.Tiger salamanders haven’t been spotted in Cucumber Gulch, but Boreal toads have. In fact, Colorado Division of Wildlife researchers have said the gulch offers some of the best habitat in the state for the rare critters, which face extinction as a deadly fungal infestation and habitat loss threaten Boreal toads and other amphibians worldwide.Frog recoveryIn Colorado, the toads are listed as a threatened species, and the federal government is due to decide on its status under the Endangered Species Act by the end of this summer.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has identified domestic dogs – along with crows and ravens – as key predators of Boreal toads in Colorado.Working toward an ambitious long-term goal of stabilizing and recovering Boreal toad populations in Colorado, the Division of Wildlife recently helped fund a summer-long research effort, teaming up with Breckenridge to analyze Cucumber Gulch.If the area is free of the deadly chytrid fungus, wildlife biologists may consider it as a potential site to try to re-establish a population with toads and tadpoles raised in a special hatchery near Alamosa. Even more fundamentally, researchers want to know how many toads live in the area, as well as when and how far they move between breeding areas and upland wintering grounds.But answering those questions requires finding at least a few toads, so I take another close look around before heading back to the Nordic center lodge, which serves as base camp for this year’s toad survey. I peer into some tufts of fluffy dry grass, where a toad might be insulated from the cold night air, and poke my nose into a few small mammal burrows that offer shelter from the frost that’s starting to paint the leaves and grass with glittering pinpricks. Cucumber Gulch’s other crittersCucumber Gulch is a key site for Boreal toad research this summer, but the stunning alpine wetlands complex is home to a multitude of other animals as well, including dozens of birds species, small mammals like raccoons, weasels and foxes, and larger mammals, including elk, deer, bear and moose.

Beavers are the “keystone” species, creating the standing water that provides habitat for so many others. Nearly every scientist that has spent time in Cucumber Gulch comes away awed by the extent and richness of the wetlands.”It’s a jewel. It’s a national treasure right in the middle of a developed recreation area,” said Sarah Fowler, a wetlands expert with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Fowler was involved in the late-1990s permitting battle related to development proposals at the nearby ski resort. “There aren’t many – if any – towns or communities that have a montane wetlands complex right in their front yards, she said. “Biologically, it’s incredibly valuable. Hopefully it’s something we can preserve for future generations.”==========================================Toad factsDescription: The Boreal toad (Bufo boreas boreas) is Colorado’s only alpine species of toad. Females generally grow to 11 centimeters and males to 9 centimeters. Both sexes appear warty and usually have a light stripe along the middle of the back. Juveniles may have red warts.Range: The species can be found throughout most of western North America, from southeastern Alaska to northern Baja California, Utah and northern New Mexico. In Colorado, the Boreal toad is restricted to the southern part of the Rocky Mountains and is found at elevations between 7,000 and 12,000 feet.

Habitat: Distribution of the Boreal toad is restricted to areas with suitable breeding habitat in spruce-fir forests and alpine meadows. Breeding habitat includes lakes, marshes, ponds and bogs with sunny exposures and quiet, shallow water.Diet: Boreal toads feed on a wide range of invertebrates and insects, including flies, mosquitoes, grasshoppers, beetles and moths. Reproduction: Toads breed in still waters in marshy areas from May to late July. Unlike many species of toad, the Boreal does not have a loud mating call. Males will emit a soft chirp, and sometimes call in groups. Females typically lay 3,000 to 8,000 eggs and larvae development takes two months or more. To learn more, go to From the Colorado Division of Wildlife.==========================================Vail, Colorado

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