We’ve been out here long enough that the traffic has slowed to only a handful of cars. Carolyn zips up her coat; it’s a bit cooler tonight after raining the past couple days. Our headlamps scan the grassy edges and bumpy pavement for anything bigger than a pinecone. Mid-conversation I spot something: “Another one, this one must be a female!”
We rush over to take a look at the puffy, warty creature, take note of the location and help her across to the other side. Another Western Toad makes it to safety so she can lay 12,000 eggs in a ribbon of pearls.
This particular night, eight community members, ranging from high school kids to retirees, are volunteering as part of a local citizen science project, Toad Angels.
The Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has listed the western toad as a species of species concern. The management plan states that the main threats are transportation and service corridors (habitat loss/fragmentation and road mortality), and invasive species (particularly, infection with the amphibian chytrid fungus). Although western toads can be found throughout BC, declines and extirpations have been documented in the southern part of the province.
In Revelstoke, the toad population along Airport Way has the well-understood challenge of crossing the road after they may have already travelled several kilometres to reach their natal pond. In populations where there is low reproductive success or high mortality, every adult breeding toad matters. This particular night, our volunteer team helped 31 toads cross. While it wasn’t a busy night for traffic, there were still several casualties — the distinct popping sound a reminder that in the battle between toads and transportation, toads lose every time
Other common threats include logging/wood harvesting, pollution, and climate change. The very threats listed are ones that threaten the local Revelstoke population (with the exception of chytrid fungus which has not been tested for nor reported).
From early spring to mid-summer toads will make three migrations across Airport Way. First as adults down from the forest to the marsh to breed, then back to the forest to feed, then lastly as a migration of thousands of baby toads, otherwise known as toadlets, from water to forest. The citizen science project is gathering data about where toads cross or die trying in the hopes that we can make a safer route for them in the future.
Maybe you’ve read this far and are wondering, but why should I care about toads? What does it matter if we have less toads? First, why should you care about any wild animal? From a traditional ecological perspective, the Ktunaxa, Secwepemc and other Indigenous nations believe that every living thing deserves respect.
Scientifically speaking, each animal on Earth today has evolved to capitalize on a specific environmental niche that was unoccupied. They have developed strategies to breed at certain times, in certain places and to eat certain foods or to avoid or defend themselves against predators in certain ways. Without a particular animal that the local food web evolved with, the web loses strength. Other animals may be able to fill the void in the food web but if it has less species or numbers of animals then the web is less complex, then it can break or collapse more easily.
Toads are interesting little animals that can tell us about the health of both the land and water which they rely on to survive. They eat aquatic plants as tadpoles and insects as adults. All throughout their life cycle toads feed birds, snakes and rodents. When hundreds of toadlets migrate from the water to the forest, you will see toad-hunters emerge from everywhere to join the feast. If you were to watch that mighty migration of tenacious pinky-nail-sized beings crossing beaches and forests, maybe it would be easier to respect the bumpy toad.
And yet a local business owner remarked recently that she has lived here for many years and she has never noticed a toadlet migration. We wonder ourselves — how many tadpoles are surviving to metamorphose into toadlets and then, how many toadlets are surviving the migration? This is a question we hope to answer as we continue to collect data. In mid July, Wildsight had many reports of toadlets crossing Airport Way at Montana Creek. When we went to check, dozens of toadlets were attempting to cross. Some were saved and we hope that with emerging partners we will be able to identify other crossing locations and create safe passage for them.
The Toad Angel project is small and grassroots. But we hope to follow the great examples of wildlife conservation as laid out in other communities in the West Kootenay such as Summit Lake ToadFest or the Fish/ Bear Lakes toad study.
Toads might be small and lumpy, but their ecosystem contributions would be felt if they were gone. That’s why we spend evenings like this out here, headlamps on and rubber gloved-hands at the ready to catch and release as many toads as we can. We wrapped up this particular evening after several hours, having counted and carried many toads to safety in the hopes that many more toadlets will have a future in the Revelstoke reach.
We do this not for one or two toads, but with the vision for whole and healthy ecosystems.