ASPEN - A recent city of Aspen study to determine whether there are boreal toads along lower Maroon Creek turned up no evidence of the unsightly amphibians residing in the area.
The survey, conducted in late August, was initiated in response to public requests to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, which is accepting comments on the city's proposed Castle Creek hydroelectric project.
David Hornbacher, director of utilities and environmental initiatives for the city, said the specific request for the survey came from water attorney Paul Noto. He represents local landowners who have filed a petition in state water court that challenges the city's right to continue the hydroelectric project, which would divert some water from Maroon Creek over to Castle Creek for hydropower purposes.
Miller Ecological Consultants Inc., of Fort Collins, conducted the survey, which cost the city $11,000. The study area extended from directly below the Highway 82 bridge to a location approximately 200 meters downstream of homes on Maroon Creek.
"The surveys were completed following the guidelines from Colorado Parks and Wildlife for late-summer surveys. We did not observe any boreal toads during the four days in the field," said William Miller, who conducted the study.
"This study should help those who had questions about this stretch of river move forward with confidence that no boreal toads are present in the region," Hornbacher said.
Each survey area had field observers walking the margins of open-water areas, upland areas adjacent to the open-water areas and wetlands between the open waters. Field workers scoured the landscape for four days and found no boreal toads, the city noted in a statement.
They found one amphibian - an immature tiger salamander.
"We continue to be responsive to the public's questions and concerns and completed these further scientific studies reflective of our ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship," Hornbacher added.
The boreal toad survey is one of many the city has undertaken to study the ecology and riparian habitat of all the reaches of rivers that may be impacted by the Castle Creek project. The city has placed an advisory question on the Nov. 6 ballot that asks local voters to bless the project's completion.
A little more than $6.9 million has been spent to date on the hydro initiative. The city estimates that it will cost about $3.6 million to finish it. The city has admitted cost overruns; original estimates when voters approved a bond issue for the project in 2007 totaled $6.2 million.
The city's primary purpose in continuing the hydroelectric project is to eliminate coal-fired power, a nonrenewable resource, from its electricity utility portfolio. The city's stated goal is to have a 100 percent renewable-energy profile by 2015.
According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, formerly the Division of Wildlife, the boreal toad is a native species once common to habitats between 7,000 and 12,000 feet in the southern Rocky Mountains. For many reasons, there have been dramatic population declines of the boreal toad, a subspecies of the western toad, in the past two decades.
The boreal toad is considered an indicator species - its presence signals a healthy ecosystem. But it is not on the federal government's endangered-species list.
The daughter of a well-known local project opponent claimed she found a boreal toad near the family's Maroon Creek property earlier this year.