Toad trackers look at Breck’ wetland | VailDaily.com
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Toad trackers look at Breck’ wetland

Bob Berwyn

BRECKENRIDGE – Alpine bogs and ponds in the local mountains are a stronghold for the endangered and rapidly disappearing boreal toad.At least eight known breeding sites exist in Summit County, and now, researchers want to know if the ecologically rich wetlands of Breckenridge’s Cucumber Gulch, a popular hiking area, is the place to boost populations by releasing lab-bred toads. “Primarily, we want to see if there are still toads in the gulch,” said Breckenridge open space and trails planner Heide Andersen, outlining a $34,000 research effort set to begin within the next few weeks. As soon as the ice melts from the Cucumber Gulch beaver ponds, teams of surveyors will launch an intensive hunt for the small toads, looking for egg masses and tadpoles in the spring, and mature toads in the summer and fall.Researchers will try to determine the presence or absence of chytrid fungus, suspected as a key factor in the decline of boreal toad populations around the Rockies and other amphibians around the world.

If mature toads are found in Cucumber Gulch, they’ll be outfitted with tiny radio transmitters, enabling toad trackers to follow their movements day and night. The goal is to understand how and when the toads move between breeding ponds and winter habitat in nearby upland areas. Breckenridge is teaming with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Vail Resorts and other partners to fund the project, with a total of 25 surveys planned for spring, summer and fall. About $23,400 will pay for the personnel needed for the research and surveys, with another $8,000 slated to pay for two special global positioning system units to track toads found during the surveys. Prime habitat?

Cucumber Gulch offers some of the best boreal toad habitat in the state, state biologist Mark Jones said. State wildlife biologists recorded breeding activity in the area in 1995 and 1997. Tadpoles were recorded during nighttime surveys in 1999, and in subsequent years, toads have turned up on the slopes of Breckenridge mountain, under the “grand staircase” at the Peak 8 base area and in some Cucumber Gulch uplands, according to a town staff report. Boreal toads, about four inches long at maturity, were common in wet, forested areas of the southern Rockies above 7,000 feet until about 20 years ago. Researchers in Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico reported big drops in populations in the early 1980s, mirroring a worldwide amphibian decline. The precipitous drop could be a canary-in-a-coal-mine warning, some conservation biologists say. With permeable skin, the moisture-dependent toads may be particularly sensitive to environmental shifts, potentially heralding significant ecosystem changes.By 1989, the toads had disappeared from 83 percent of areas they’d previously occupied in Colorado, and from 94 percent in Wyoming. Only 38 breeding sites remain in the three states, with most of those on U.S. Forest Service land in Colorado.”Basically, we’ve got a remnant population,” said Tom Kroening, Division of Wildlife manager for Summit County.

“Anecdotally, there are indications there were more toads decades back,” Kroening said of Cucumber Gulch, adding that there are no scientifically documented reports of toad numbers dating back that far.Kroening said that surveys for the state-listed endangered species are done every year in Summit County, and that researchers continue to find toads at known breeding sites.Populations at most sites remain relatively constant, Kroening said, with the exception of a Peru Creek site, where chytrid fungus was found. Kroening said no toads were seen at that site last year.Although biologists don’t understand exactly how the skin-infecting fungus kills toads, Kroening said enough is known to say it’s contributing to a reduction of populations in some areas.

Federal listing studiedBiologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are considering whether the boreal toad should be added to the federal endangered species list, with a decision due by the end of the year, said Terry Ireland, who is working on the listing proposal in the Fish and Wildlife Serivce’s Grand Junction office. Ireland said there appears to be a trend toward extinction of boreal toad populations, with no hopeful signs for natural recovery. And that’s where the state’s reintroduction effort and Cucumber Gulch come into the picture. “We want to investigate if we can develop new populations out in the wild,” said state biologist Tom Nesler.Some state and local officials fear federal listing under the Endangered Species Act could result in land-use restriction around known toad breeding sites or near potential habitat. Vail Colorado


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