A few miles away from Cameron Pass, at 9,500 feet in the mountains of Northern Colorado, Boyd Wright sloshes through the water on the edge of a swimming pool-sized pond. Wright, a biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, is getting ready to go toad-hunting.
“I usually try to think back to my childhood and how I would go about catching a frog, which I did a lot as a kid,” said Wright.
Taking careful steps through the water, he cups his hand and grabs a male boreal toad. It’s fist-sized, black and shiny, and scared.
Wright flips a toad on his back, to get a look at his belly. It’s beautiful, with spots that look like a leopard print. He takes a photo for tracking purposes; each toad can be identified by his belly print, which is unique, like a fingerprint. The toad keeps chirping, sounding a little like an oversized cricket.
“He’s basically saying ‘hey, get your hands off me,’” said Wright.
We’re up at this site because this is the only place in all of Colorado where an effort to reintroduce boreal toads has worked.
Frogs and toads across the United States and in Colorado are in trouble. The boreal toad, which is native to the Southern Rockies, is no exception. Fifty years ago, boreal toads were widespread, said Harry Crockett, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist who heads up the effort to bring back the toads.
“We know from a lot of different sources, people talk about how it used to be hard to walk around the wetlands without stepping on one,” he said.
Then came chytrid fungus. Biologists believe it was spread from pet African frogs brought to the United States. It attacks amphibian skin, which they use to breathe and get nutrition. When it reaches a pond, it can wipe out an entire population in just a year.
Not all toads and frogs are susceptible. But boreal toads are. Chytrid fungus was documented in Colorado in the late 80s. In the past few decades, as it spread across the state, the numbers of boreal toads have dropped drastically. No one knows yet exactly what is spreading the disease across the state. It could be humans, which is one of the reasons the pond’s exact location has to be kept secret.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is working to help the amphibians make a comeback. They captured boreal toads from various ponds before the fungus reached those locations, and learned to breed them in captivity. Their hope is to reintroduce toads in parts of the state that do not have chytrid fungus, keeping toads around while other scientists work on ways to stop the fungus, or develop a cure.
Crockett said scientists don’t know all that much about the toads. So they’re not totally sure what would happen if they disappeared. But losing them would be a shame nonetheless, he believes, invoking the words of famous conservationist Aldo Leopold:
“The first rule of intelligent tinkering is don’t throw away the parts.”
Thus, the pond at Cameron Pass. Out of four other reintroduction efforts, including one in Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s the only one where toads have returned and reproduced. This gives biologists like Mary Kay Watry, who works in Rocky Mountain National Park and has tracked toad populations there, a sense of hope.
“It is vindication to know that we can have success in a reintroduction and it is a tool that we can use in the future to hopefully establish future populations across the landscape,” Watry said.
At the pond, Boyd Wright counts up mating toads and puts down flagging in the water, marking the many strands of eggs, which like like strings of tiny black pearls. After putting on a pair of nitrile gloves (chemicals on human skin can hurt the toads) he captures some male boreal toads, weighs them, and swabs their bellies with a Q-tip. Later, the DNA will be tested for chytrid fungus.
If all goes well, this site will remain chytrid free, and toads from it will spread to other nearby wetlands. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is planning more reintroductions in other fungus-free sites. It will take more work and maybe a bit of luck, but it’s possible that some day these mountains will once again be full of boreal toads. Maybe so many you can’t walk through a wetland without stepping on one.