A Collaborative Quest to Save an Endangered Toad from Extinction
"Often stories have one champion, but this story is about a community of champions for the species."
-US Forest Service
The Boreal Toad is Colorado’s only alpine species of toad; this high altitude amphibian lives at 7,000-12,000 feet of elevation in mountain ponds and lakes. This indicator species has been tracked to hop over 5 miles through rugged mountain terrain to find healthy habitats. The Boreal Toad is found living all over the US and Canada (New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alberta, and Alaska). Each adult toad is unique and identified by spots and markings on their bellies (just like our fingerprints), spots that as you can see from the photos, start at the tadpole phase. While they have no vocal sac and hibernate for half their lives, they do have hundreds of people loudly fighting for their survival.
These amphibians used to thrive in numbers to the point in which they were seen in towns and on roads, now their severely declining population has the species listed as endangered in Colorado and New Mexico; and protected in Wyoming. Currently there is a shockingly low estimation of around 800 adult toads living in Colorado. The major threats: habitat loss, climate change, and a deadly fungus called Chytrid that is wiping out amphibian populations globally.
In 2008 the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources started an assurance colony at the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Since then, collaborators from around the US joined the effort to save the species. Eggs were collected from the wild to be hatched and raised for rerelease at the following facilities: Utah's Hogle Zoo, the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, Denver Zoo, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Division's Wahweap Warmwater Fish Hatchery. Currently, 145 toads from 15 sibling lots are being maintained at these institutions.
In 2019 Denver Zoo was the first to successfully breed boreal toads, using hormone injections for laying eggs, which led to the release of 613 newly metamorphosed toads (toadlets) that were taken on a toad trip from Colorado to Utah and released. Since then, their model has been used by the other partner facilities and over 6,276 tadpoles, metamorphs, and one-year-old toads have been released back into the wild in the state of Utah alone (that isn’t including the numbers from releases that have happened in the state of Colorado and New Mexico). Approximately 80 more toads are being prepared to be shipped from Omaha Zoo for release within the next few weeks.
Facilities are not only helping breed and release the Boreal Toad, but there are community science groups that survey high altitude mountain wetlands for boreal toad populations and check for Chytrid fungus.
The following photos follow a release of tadpoles in Utah, one of the latest releases of newly metamorphosed toadlets back to the Paunsaugunt Plateau August 2022, bringing the story full circle on what has been a journey that started in 2008 at the same plateau and now has thousands of toads that have been successfully set free to keep this species alive.
From zoos, state agencies and community scientists joining forces, this story speaks to the importance of collaboration, technology and passion to protect species. It is a beautiful success story to try and protect this high altitude amphibian, the only mountain toad in Colorado.