Blazing New roads destroys toads' abodes

Story by Andrew Cremata - Photos by Greg Pauly

Alaska is known for its wildlife. The pristine wilderness of the north supports the mighty grizzly bear, the majestic moose and the stealthy lynx. Eagles soar over pods of barking sea lions and breaching humpback whales.
Southeast Alaska is drawing a lot of attention for another of its wild animals. It is a creature that spends its winters in hibernation, and is camouflaged and often hiding in the summer. Its call is not well known and can be mistaken for a bird. It very well may be the least understood animal in our area but chances are there is one nearby.
It is the Western Toad, and there is much concern over the health and preservation of the species.
Scientists agree that frog and toad populations are on the decline worldwide. Studies indicate that potential factors could include environmental destruction, increased ultraviolet radiation from holes in the ozone and pollution in the form of fossil fuel emissions.
While these factors require more data to determine their individual impact, recent studies in Skagway indicate there are precautions residents can take to protect the fragile animals.
While there is little scientific evidence to suggest that toad populations are on the decline in Southeast Alaska, anecdotal evidence strongly supports this supposition.
“We used to see toads all the time. It was hard to avoid them with your car,” says Dyea resident John McDermott. “For the last few years we haven’t seen near as many.”
Another Dyea resident, Wayne Greenstreet used to pull out toads that took up residence in his basement by the bucketful. “The last time I freed a bucketful of toads was six years ago,” says Greenstreet.
This is a story mimicked by Southeast Alaska residents over the entire region.
Greg Pauly takes this word of mouth evidence seriously. Pauly is a grad student at the University of Texas. He recently stayed at the McDermott home to study the amphibians for his research in understanding the evolution of sounds that toads and frogs make.
“We do not know for sure if toads are disappearing in Alaska,” says Pauly. “There is just not enough history on the subject. Over the last six to ten years however, everyone who lives in the area has seen the decline.”
Pauly continues, “In Alaska people are educated about their environment. The average person knows a lot of natural history as opposed to anywhere else in the country.”
Pauly relates a story about some local children out at the Seventh Pasture ball field who were not only familiar with the species but are finding it difficult to find any of late.

Pauly has found through his research that individual species of toads and frogs can be identified by their vocalizations, much the same as birds. This prevents interspecies mating and allows “discriminating females to select a mate with a lower frequency which would indicate a bigger male.”
At higher latitudes or elevations, which includes Skagway, Pauly says, “Western toads re-evolved a distinct color pattern where the females are a bright green in color and the males are more drab and uniform in color.”
Pauly is attempting to assess where the convergence of these different colored animals takes place throughout their range.
Where are the toads in and around Skagway, and what can be done to protect them?
Meg Hahr of the National Park Service in Skagway worked with Pauly in determining where toads are breeding and what factors might be causing their decline. Together, they mapped out breeding sites where toads were observed, and Hahr presented the information at the April Dyea Community Advisory Council meeting.
“Toads need standing water to breed,” said Hahr at the meeting, “Vegetation in the water is critical. The eggs are attached to vegetation that comes out of the water and also provides cover from predators.”
The most voracious predator of the toads may not even know they are attacking. Hahr presented a photo of one breeding area, a small pond with tire tracks crisscrossing through mud and trampled grass.
Drivers of four-wheelers, ATVs, and dirt bikes may be a large factor in the decline locally.
“People just don’t know they are hurting toads,” says McDermott. “They’re just playing in the mud. The best thing we can do is educate them.”
McDermott would like to see these locations that have been identified as breeding areas marked in some way so those who use recreational vehicles can be made aware of their presence and avoid inadvertently destroying the sites.
Hahr points out that not only can the tires of these vehicles crush the toads and tadpoles but also “even driving through a breeding pond can destroy vegetation and stir up silt that suffocates the eggs and destroys them.”
Hahr looks to habitat protection as the key to recovery.
“The best thing we can do is check all sites during breeding season, inventory and map these sites, and determine what’s making them not productive anymore,” she said.
Transplanting plant material into other potential breeding locations could also help but only if the off-road traffic through these areas is diverted.
It seems the industrious toads may have found a solution to the problem by themselves. With so many areas destroyed that were traditionally used by the animals for breeding, the toads have sought out areas that are more resilient to the attacks.
Pauly explains, “The two ponds across (east) from the rafter’s pullout along the Taiya River were former quarry sites where rocks and gravel were removed for road work. The depressions left behind fill with water and toads breed in those ponds, particularly the large shallow gravel pond. Last season, the majority of the spawning toads were observed in that pond.
“The obvious difference between the quarry pond and the traditional mud pond is the substrate. The vehicle traffic in the mud ponds does lots of damage by stirring up silt and trampling vegetation. The gravel site doesn’t have the silt problem although vegetation would certainly still be susceptible to trampling.”
With the toads breeding in early June and emerging as toads in August there is little time to protect the volatile amphibians before the crush of summer. McDermott hopes that in working with the Park Service, breeding areas can be marked off and identified with signs, and that an informed public will take precautions when using the area for recreation.
McDermott says optimistically, “We have a large enough area that we can protect these animals and still use the area for recreation.”