- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A new recovery plan for the Wyoming toad announced Thursday seeks to carry forward recent success in finally getting the critically endangered amphibian to survive in the wild.

Key for the 2-inch toad, which not long ago was considered extinct in the wild, is a new technique for releasing tadpoles bred in captivity into the Laramie River Valley.

Instead of releasing tadpoles straight into ponds, biologists over the past three years have been putting them in large, wire-mesh cages placed partway in the ponds. Later, they transfer young toads to cages upland before releasing them, fully grown, to hop away into the summer grassland.

The cages prevent predators - birds, raccoons, mice - from indulging in tadpole snacks. The result: Biologists this year counted a record 1,000 or so toads at Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge a dozen miles southwest of Laramie. Among them were a few hundred toads of breeding age and even some egg clusters, a vastly better result than the few dozen toads, at most, they used to find each spring.

“I find it extremely encouraging,” said Lizzy Mack, Wyoming toad manager for the University of Wyoming and Fish and Wildlife Service.

Biologists are working with private landowners to release toads at two other locations under federal “safe harbor agreements” shielding them from liability for accidental toad harm on their property.

Three self-sustaining populations could enable the toad’s downlisting to a threatened species. Five could allow removal from the endangered species list altogether as soon as 2030, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan. Delisting would cost an estimated $4.3 million, according to the document.

The Wyoming toad lives only in the Laramie River Valley, but it was abundant there before the population crashed in the 1970s. Chytrid fungus, a disease that has devastated amphibians worldwide, has been the toad’s biggest enemy.

The Wyoming toad was listed as endangered in 1984 and presumed extinct the following year, though toads were rediscovered at Mortenson Lake in 1987. In 1989, biologists rounded up the last 10 toads thought to exist in the wild for captive breeding.

For years, the program’s results bordered between discouraging and futile. Hardly any of the 160,000 tadpoles released into the wild over a decade grew to adulthood, said Tyler Abbot, head of the Wyoming Toad Recovery Team for Fish and Wildlife.

“We were not getting any self-sustaining breeding populations. They weren’t growing up into the next life history stage, into breeding adults,” Abbot said.

The new “soft release” approach changed all that, he said.

Fish and Wildlife who approved the recovery plan in July held off on announcing it until news about a much more high-profile species - last week’s announcement that the greater sage grouse didn’t need endangered species protection in its 11-state range - had passed.

The Wyoming toad isn’t much to look at compared with strutting male sage grouse during mating season, but it should be valued nonetheless, Mack said.

“People should be really proud of the fact this animal is found only in their region,” she said. “These animals play big roles in their ecosystems where they’re found. Toads eat a ton of invertebrates. And so that definitely has an effect on the ecosystem.”

Persuading more landowners to sign up for safe harbor agreements and allow toads on their property will be key, said Kevin Gelwicks, aquatic assessment crew supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“It is kind of tricky. People hear ‘endangered,’ and they get concerned,” Gelwicks said. “It gives them some assurances that if they release the toad on their property it’s not going to put them out of business.”

Wider appreciation for the Wyoming toad - one of just six toad species found in the state - seems to be catching on. One Laramie microbrewery has introduced a Wyoming Toad Rye IPA, advertised as “a reminder to continually care for our home state.”

“I think people are really starting to own the toad,” Mack said.

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