A special guest post from Grand Canyon Trust volunteer Barb Gysel (Durango, CO)
“Toad!” The word we had been patiently waiting to hear excitedly popped out of the mouth of our fellow volunteer as she approached a small boulder field adjacent to Monroe Creek, where our group of eight intrepid “toad wanderers” had been searching for the elusive boreal toad. Our troupe quickly sprang into action as the toad scuttled beneath the closest small rock. One of the volunteers from Utah’s Hogle Zoo flexed his muscles and moved five heavy rocks, probing ever deeper, to unearth our objective. After a few anxious moments, he firmly but tenderly grasped the subject of our investigation and held it aloft as though we were in elementary school “show and tell.” That’s how excited we felt! Kevin Wheeler, wildlife biologist for Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources, quickly whipped out his ruler to measure our toad, then swiped its tummy and between its toes 20 times with a cotton swab. We weren’t trying to see if it would turn into a prince, but instead to collect data for laboratory analysis. Was this toad carrying the dreaded chytrid fungus which is wreaking havoc on the toad population in this area?
Have you ever heard of the boreal toad? No? Neither had we, until we became involved with another Grand Canyon Trust volunteer project. This small amphibian is classified as a sensitive species in Utah, and unfortunately, could someday to move to the even more critical “threatened” level. Kevin Wheeler has been passionately studying this species and collecting data about it for the last 15 years. The apprehension on his face expressed measured happiness at finding this individual toad, but also concern about declining boreal toad numbers and increasing spread of the menacing chytrid fungus disease. Our data would help tell more of the story for this particular mountain in southern Utah.
The volunteer composition of this trip was different from others in which we had participated. In addition to staff from Grand Canyon Trust staff and Utah Division of Wildlife, there was a contingent of staff and volunteers from Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. The interest, knowledge, and experience of these volunteers were evident. They eagerly shared their talents and knowledge during our daily treks on Monroe Mountain.
Due to the remoteness of the drainages that comprised our study areas, our hikes were challenging. We did not hike on trails, but instead climbed up rocky creek beds, with slippery rocks and a gazillion downed trees, usually ending up in a boggy meadow – perfect boreal toad habitat! The moist terrain endowed the meadows with an abundance of wild flowers. Lavender penstemons, and magenta shooting stars dotted the meadow like random appliqués on a quilt of brilliant green reeds and grasses. Herds of little pink elephants delighted those unfamiliar with this treasure among mountain flowers.
The meditative silence of toad searching attuned our ears for the mountain meadow’s musical playlist: the harmonic and cheerful song of the robin greeting each day with a touch of joy; the ethereal melody of the hermit thrush briefly inviting us into her world; the shrill screech of the red tailed hawk soaring high up above us as she peered down, looking for a snack; the deep gurgling burble of water mud as we appealed to the boggy meadows to release our feet from their grip. Could it be a toad we heard? Oh no, the sneaky boreal toads seldom make a sound!
Are you wondering if we discovered any of these elusive amphibians? YES, we did! Nearly a dozen of them in all, including three areas where they had never been found before on Monroe Mountain. We were happy to learn they are still on Monroe Mountain, and in places where they weren’t even known to be before. Kevin assured us that our research will help their survival, and that is a great feeling.
What is not to love about experiences like these? We spent time with great and committed people, doing important work, enjoying lots of good humor, great learning, exploring and fun.