Boreal toads are a sight for sharp eyes around Aspen
September 27, 2010
ASPEN – Observant hikers in the mountains around Aspen are coming across a creature that only a biologist could love. OK, maybe any nature lover would gaze fondly at a boreal toad, but only a biologist would say: “They have gorgeous eyes. They also smell like peanut butter.”
Most hikers probably don’t stop to sniff a boreal toad, should they encounter one on the forest floor, but Tina Jackson, aquatic/herptile coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, is well acquainted with the scent of the toxin the toads secrete when they’re in danger.
And, she’s cheered by reported encounters with the toad around Aspen this summer.
The DOW is monitoring some 80 known breeding spots for the boreal toad in Colorado, and tracking their health and population. The species is on the state’s endangered species list, though they are not protected federally.
To keep tabs on the toad, the DOW asks hikers to notify a local agency office and report boreal toad sightings.
Karin Teague of Basalt did just that this summer, when she spotted one of the toads at Weller Lake on Independence Pass, not far from Aspen.
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“I had never seen a boreal toad before,” said Teague, an avid hiker who snapped the toad’s photo. “Needless to say, now I’m always going to be keeping my eye out for boreal toads.”
Naturalists with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies spotted one of the toads along the trail that rings Maroon Lake in early June, and a hiker reportedly spied about a dozen of the toads near Conundrum Hot Springs south of Aspen – a spot the DOW has identified as a breeding locale, but where the toads haven’t been documented in recent years, according to Jackson.
Boreal toads are native to the state and the only toad that lives at higher elevations – generally 8,000 to 12,000 feet. It’s considered an indicator species – its presence signals a healthy ecosystem – but their survival is important for less tangible reasons, Jackson contends.
“They’re native to Colorado and they belong here. They just should be here,” she said. “It’s just kind of philosophically nice that they’re out there.”
The toads are typically found around old beaver ponds and shallow lakes in the mountains. They breed and lay eggs in the water in the spring as soon as the ice recedes. “You can actually see boreal toads in some areas walking across the snow to get to the pond,” Jackson said.
Once the adult toads breed and lay eggs, they may leave the ponds and can be found in the forest. The tadpoles must emerge from the lake or pond before ice returns in the fall.
In addition to Conundrum, the DOW is aware of small populations of the toads at a pond on the Snowmass Ski Area, and at spots in the Lincoln Creek drainage on Independence Pass, southeast of Aspen. After discovering tadpoles in the Grizzly Reservoir area on the Pass in 2006, the division and U.S. Forest Service worked to create a wetlands in the hope it would serve as a breeding site. So far, the DOW hasn’t been able to document toads using the area, though.
“We’re still kind of holding our breath,” Jackson said.
A mountain beaver pond below Cottonwood Pass in Chaffee County is, to the DOW’s knowledge, the last stronghold of the toads in Colorado. Some 130 toads were tallied there early in the season, compared to four adult toads at a site near Aspen that’s considered to be doing well, Jackson said.
The toads were at one time commonplace in mountain drainages, but have disappeared from a number of their breeding sites over the past 30 to 40 years, she said. An imported fungus may be to blame; it’s believed it was spread by African frogs that were brought to the States for use in pregnancy tests and ultimately released into the wild.
The DOW has apparently successfully reintroduced boreal toads to a breeding site in Larimer County, but three other reintroduction attempts were compromised by the fungus.
Jackson recommends hikers not pick up the toads, as the fungus can be easily spread.
But do admire their eyes, which are a metallic, copper color, she advised.
Adult female frogs are about the size of a human fist; males are a bit smaller. The toads are easily distinguishable by a light-colored stripe down the middle of their backs.
While encounters with a boreal toad are relatively rare, they’re not unheard of, Jackson said.
“They’re probably doing better than we think, but they’re not doing as well as they were 40 years ago,” she said. “Definitely, if you do run into one, let us know.”