More than 900 adult Wyoming toads were released at three sites in the Laramie River basin Wednesday afternoon, an effort requiring the cooperation of a number of agencies, volunteers and landowners.
The endangered amphibians were raised to adulthood at the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery before being transported across the Snowy Range for release into the wild on Buford Foundation property, Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge and another private ranch.
At the Buford Foundation, which sits adjacent to Wyoming Highway 130 a few miles east of Centennial, several hundred toads hopped about inside plastic tubs as they awaited release.
Volunteers wearing gloves walked the tubs to muddy spots adjacent to a lake, where the toads were gently picked up and set in the marshy grass.
Chorus frogs chirped in the background against a horizon dominated by Sheep Mountain and the snow-capped Snowies.
Within moments, as they dispersed and burrowed into the gray mud, the palm-sized toads became almost indistinguishable from their surroundings.
The release marked the largest ever of adult amphibians raised in the National Fish Hatchery System, of which the Saratoga hatchery is a member.
Greg Gerlich, assistant regional director for fish and aquatic conservation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversees the raising of the toads, said the release was the product of a number of partnerships, both among FWS departments and with outside agencies.
Among the several dozen people on hand to participate in the release were those from agencies including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Laramie Rivers Conservation District.
Gerlich also credited landowners who allow toad releases on their property for their integral part in the effort.
“Without their help and assistance, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said.
Landowner Fred Lindzey, who owns property on the Little Laramie River, has had a safe harbor agreement with Fish and Wildlife for the last couple years. The agreement allows the service to release the endangered species on his land while protecting him from liability.
“It feels really good,” he said of Wednesday’s release. “If it works out, it’ll feel even better.”
Buford Foundation Executive Director Cliff McEvoy said toads have been released on the property for more than 20 years. The foundation aims to offer wilderness experiences for youth, and the Wyoming toad’s recovery fits that mission.
“We can teach even more about nature,” he said.
The release is part of an updated recovery plan adopted in 2015 by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which aims to have the toad delisted as an endangered species by establishing at least five self-sustaining populations.
One strategy to allow for better toad survival is the practice of “soft releases,” where captive-bred adults and tadpoles are released initially into enclosures to give them a better chance of survival.
The strategy has been put into practice in recent years and improved toad survival, according to the service.
At the Buford Foundation, part of the group of adults were placed in boxes made from wire mesh, PVC pipe and wood. They are scheduled to live in the enclosures for several days before joining their counterparts in the marshes.
Toads in the wild and in captivity are also susceptible to an infectious disease known as chytridimycosis, or chytrid, which threatens amphibians around the world. On Wednesday, volunteers disinfected their boots before venturing into the mud and only handled the toads while wearing gloves, in order to prevent the spread of the fungus.
“Chytrid fungus is basically the No. 1 threat to the toads, and we’ve got to keep them safe,” said Lizzy Mack, Wyoming toad manager for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Scientists will continue surveying the release sites looking for signs not only of the adult toads but also signs of reproduction, such as egg masses.
The Wyoming toad was plentiful until the 1970s, when its population took a sudden and swift decline. It was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1984 and considered extinct shortly thereafter until rediscovery at Mortenson Lake southwest of Laramie in 1987. Some of the last known individuals were taken into captivity in 1989.
Captive breeding of the Wyoming toad has been ongoing since 1995 and now occurs at eight zoos around the country as well as the University of Wyoming’s Red Buttes Biological Laboratory and Saratoga National Fish Hatchery.