Feds buy $2 million parcel to save Wyoming toad — warts and all

Rare species may hold key to medical advances

By: - November 9, 2023 6:36 am

Wyoming toad released to the wild. (Mindy Meade Vohland | USFWS)

Federal officials hope a $2 million land purchase just outside Laramie will help reestablish the only wild population of the Wyoming toad in the world.

The 1,078 acres the government acquired last month is part of the new Wyoming Toad Conservation Area. The 43,200-acre complex became the 569th unit in the National Wildlife Refuge System last week. Public land, existing federal refuges and conservation easements on private property make up the balance of the new refuge unit. Scientists will manage the reserve principally for a species that crawls its way among grasses and wetlands exclusively in the Laramie Basin.

Experts consider the lumpy, warted, 2-inch long Wyoming toad, which has a distinct ridge on its head and wears a perpetual wide-mouthed scowl, to be one of, if not the most, endangered amphibians in North America. Scientists at nine captive breeding facilities across the country, including at the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery, keep the species alive and produce offspring that are released to the wild.

“We went from having thousands of them in the late ’70s,” said Tyler Abbott, Wyoming field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Cheyenne, to the point “they all but disappeared.”

Humans spread the south Asian pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which causes the chytrid fungus that ran amok in the U.S. in the 1980s. It decimated the Wyoming toad to the point the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put the species under Endangered Species Act protection in 1984.

In addition to the fungus, habitat destruction from development, impacts to water quality from pesticides and pollution, and changes in water distribution due to agriculture and other uses threaten the wild toad.

Genetically, the Wyoming toad is one of a kind.

“We might discover something unique about it,” Abbott said.

There’s indications the Wyoming toad can fend off the fungus to some degree. Chytrid fungus has affected about 500 species of amphibians around the world and eliminated about 90 of them that were unable to fight it on their own.

Understanding the toad’s potential resilience could contribute to the conservation of other toads, frogs and salamanders, the decline of which humans are accountable for.

“There’s sort of an onus on us … maybe a moral responsibility … to address those threats,” Abbott said.

Recovery plan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wyoming toad recovery plan seeks to establish five independent self-sustaining populations in the 43,200-acre conservation area. The existing Hutton Lake, Mortenson Lake and Bamforth national wildlife refuges are cornerstones of the area, which will include private lands covered by conservation easements and other agreements.

The new federal land is adjacent to Hutton Lake Refuge. The federal government bought the acreage from The Conservation Fund For $1.98 million in September using the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Conservation Fund bought the property from the Bath Land Company last year.

Captive Wyoming toads at feeding time. (Stephanie Raine/USFWS)

The late Dr. George Baxter of the University of Wyoming and Wyoming Game and Fish Department identified the species in the 1970s when it thrived in the area between the Snowy and Laramie ranges. The toads are “at the center of the region’s food chain,” according to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they are bred.

Some Wyoming toads were still found at Mortenson Lake in 1987, and the site was made a refuge in 1993. In 1994, the last toads — about 10 of them — were collected for captive breeding, and the species was considered extinct in the wild.

Captive breeding took place across the country, including at the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Today there are some 500 captive toads, according to information compiled by Rachel Arrick, the Wyoming recovery coordinator for the federal service.

Captive breeding produced 824 adults, 25,211 tadpoles and 260 toadlets for release this year at appropriate sites in the basin.

Toads have short legs and crawl, frogs hop on long legs, stay closer to water and have wet skin. A carnivore, the Wyoming toad eats ants, beetles, other crunchy insects and grubs.

Toads hibernate. Breeders routinely put them in the fridge, so to speak, for a 40- to 60-day hibernation cycle, then inject them with toad Viagra, or some such thing, to promote sex.

“This short-cycle hibernation, in addition to hormone injections, is effective in priming toads for breeding and egg production,” Arrick wrote.

There’s also a natural method.

At one breeding lab, Wyoming’s Red Buttes, toads are put outdoors in the fall to dig their own bedrooms for winter-long hibernation.

“This has often resulted in toads emerging ready to breed without hormone injections,” Arrick said.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland hailed the new conservation area last week.

“National wildlife refuges help connect Americans to a diverse array of public lands, while also serving as a crucial means of protecting wildlife and conserving habitat,” she said in a statement.

The city of Laramie, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Laramie Rivers Conservation District contributed to the conservation effort, which was years in the making. A federal land protection plan authorized the purchase of property and conservation easements from willing sellers.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams — the former director of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks — recognized that collaboration.

“The Service is grateful for incredible partnerships like these that lead to demonstrated successes across the country on behalf of wildlife and people,” she said in a statement.

Beyond amphibians and the general environment, toads and their ilk may have unknown benefits to humans. The Sonoran Desert toad, for example, excretes a venom that has psychedelic properties. The synthetic version of the secretion, known as 5-methocy-N,-N-dimethyltryptamine, appears to ameliorate depression and anxiety when used in some settings.

Chinese researchers go further, calling for enhanced research by leading drug companies into medicinal use of toad byproducts. In a paper that calls toads the “Angel[s] of human health” Qian Yang and others say toad medicine has been widely used in traditional Asian treatments for liver cancer, gastric cancer, esophageal cancer, colon cancer and cervical cancer, among others.

“I don’t know that we suspect there’s any benefit like a chemical [the Wyoming toad] exudes that could help pharmaceutically,” Abbott said. But whether because of its genetics or an ability to resist the fungus through conditioning, there’s a practical upside to saving the Wyoming toad.

“What if we could find a way this toad can adapt and live with this fungus?” Abbott asked. That could contribute to the conservation of other amphibians, he said.

This story was originally produced by WyoFile, a content and publishing partner of States Newsroom, which includes the Daily Montanan.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.