A mountain toad that breeds in alpine ponds and feeds on forest insects is threatened by a fungal epidemic and deserves federal protection, said three biodiversity groups Wednesday in filing a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The boreal toad, a lumpy, 4-inch amphibian ranging from coastal Alaska to Utah, Colorado and the mountains of New Mexico is at risk in the southern Rockies and deserves protection as a distinct population there, according to the petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Native Ecosystems and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.
The toad breeds in just 1 percent of its historical areas, said Collette Adkins Giese, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. Colorado already protects the toad from significant habitat disruption under state law.
"There's just a handful of populations left in Colorado," Adkins Giese said, "which used to be a real mainstay for the toad."
The primary threat to boreal toads is a fungus affecting amphibians worldwide. There's no cure or treatment for afflicted populations, though reducing environmental stresses logging, livestock grazing and other disturbances could keep outbreaks in check.
"We need [toads] to develop resistance, or we need to find a way to help them develop resistance," said Tina Jackson, species-conservation coordinator with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
A Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conservation plan notes that boreal toads live in most of the Beehive State's major highlands including the Wasatch, Bear River and Uinta ranges in the north and the Paunsaugunt, Sevier and Awapa plateaus in the south with at least two dozen known breeding areas.
The plan acknowledges possible habitat destruction by grazing in national forests, where poorly managed cattle are allowed to stay in and around alpine water, trampling eggs and causing siltation. But the plan also foresees a possible role for grazing, since properly managed herds can help prevent forest plant successions that can close in on wetlands.
Grazing and other activities can also compact forest soils where toads burrow to hibernate, Adkins Giese said.
In 1995, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the toad warranted listing as a threatened or endangered species, although it didn't do so at the time because of a backlog of more pressing actions. In 2005, the agency reversed course and said the southern population wasn't distinct from toads in the Northwest and therefore didn't merit special consideration.
Since then, two genetic studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Colorado have determined that the southern population is, indeed, distinct.
Feds have 90 days to respond
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to review the petition seeking protection for the boreal toad. The petition asks for protection in Utah, southern Wyoming, southern Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.