Colorado biologist hoping to head off feds

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. - Mark Jones spends his days snatching toads, but it's all in a good cause.

Jones, a biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, is hoping to make it unnecessary for federal officials to declare the Boreal toad, aka bufo boreas boreas, endangered.

The toads, which scientists say have been around longer than dinosaurs, have been dying out in large numbers. Jones says the problem is a deadly fungus.

The toads live in wetlands between elevations of 7,000 and 12,000 feet, areas threatened by the population growth in Colorado's high country. Jones has found a small but thriving population in the Snake River near the Keystone Ski Resort.

Boreal toads are important to ecosystems and biologists who study them because they are an indicator species, and their demise can signal a larger underlying problem affecting their habitat.

If the fungus kills too many toads, the amphibian could be listed as an endangered species. But Jones fears land owners would no longer cooperate with recovery programs because admitting the presence of the toads would subject them to federal land use restrictions.

There are about 1,000 Southern Rocky Mountain boreal toads left in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, which led them to be listed on the state endangered species list in November 1993, Jones said.

It hasn't yet been listed as a federal endangered species because other species face greater risks. Jones is taking toads from 12 different sites throughout the state to a rare-aquatic species hatchery in the San Luis Valley.

The John W. Mumma Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility, which opened earlier this month, will be used to try to restore Colorado's threatened and endangered fish, amphibians and mollusk populations.

''This is critical for the rehabilitation of the boreal toad,'' Jones said. ''Before the hatchery, we've had to keep some toads in the hatchery supervisor's garage.''

While the toads are in captivity, researchers will study the chytrid fungus that last year was found to be responsible for a worldwide decline in the toad population. The fungus has been implicated in die-offs in Central America and Australia, and found in several locations in North America.

The prevailing theory is the fungus causes a thickening of the skin, perhaps as a defense mechanism of the toad, and interferes with its water uptake regulation. Infected toads that have sat in pans of water and died were found to be severely dehydrated, Jones said.

''By far, the biggest problem is this fungus,'' he said. ''We don't know how to stop it. We can't treat the population in the wild. If we treat adults, and put them back in the wild, they get infected again.''

Scientists are also working on a treatment to kill the fungus.


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