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Putting the Extremely Rare Wyoming Toad Back Into the Wild

  By Jordan Schaul Bree Barney loves her job, she really does! The small mammal keeper, like many, has a few miscellaneous reptiles and amphibians on her string. She boasts about getting to hold sloths and feeding Galapagos tortoises, but is most proud of the Como Park Zoo and Conservancy‘s participation in their first-ever conservation...


By Jordan Schaul

Bree Barney loves her job, she really does! The small mammal keeper, like many, has a few miscellaneous reptiles and amphibians on her string. She boasts about getting to hold sloths and feeding Galapagos tortoises, but is most proud of the Como Park Zoo and Conservancy‘s participation in their first-ever conservation project involving the release of captive reared animals — Wyoming toadlets.

And she gets to do it. Yes, she visits the field site personally and with other zoo herpetoculturists, many of whom are veteran zoo herpetologists, gets to release the captive reared animals back into the wild.

Bree admits that since childhood , all she ever wanted to do was “help our natural world and the animal kingdom to the best of [her] ability, whether it is a toad, a giraffe, or an orangutan.”

In corresponding with Bree, it is clear that she takes her role as the lead Wyoming toad keeper at the Como Zoo very seriously, and it is a big responsibility. Today animal keepers not only participate in field conservation, they coordinate these projects in conjunction with government agencies.

Back when I was a rookie keeper there were a few attempts at “headstart” programs for amphibians worldwide, and typically, curatorial staff participated in field conservation initiatives. Now entire herp departments from keepers and supervisors to assistant curators and veterinarians participate in these projects.

Senior scientists and curators may play an integral role in conducting research and coordinating the logistical aspects of these programs. In some cases the keepers do as well.

Here is the story of the Wyoming toad and how several leading zoological institutions brought this toad back from the brink of extinction.

A couple months ago I reported on the notable amphibian conservation initiative directed by the Phoenix Zoo‘s conservation and herpetological departments for National Geographic’s News Watch. The Zoo had just released its 10,000th Chiricahua leopard frog into Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, a significant milestone for a multi-agency program that included the zoo, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Phoenix Zoo marks restoration of 10,000th frog to the wild.)

Zoos like Phoenix continue to play a more pivotal role in sorta situ conservation (field-based and collection-based collaborations), and they are particularly making headway in combating amphibian decline attributed in part to climate change, pollution, and the chytrid fungus epizootics which have decimated species worldwide.

At the most recent Association of Zoos and Aquarium national conference hosted by the Houston Zoo, I spoke with colleague John Dee, a herpetologist and General Curator of the Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota. John was excited to inform me that the Como Zoo had been selected as one of nine zoos to participate in the ex situ conservation efforts for the Wyoming toad — Bufo (Anaxyrus) baxteri — a species which was listed as Endangered in 1984.


Photo courtesy of Como Zoo

To be eligible to participate in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) each institution must meet certain criteria. The four criteria relevant to preventive medicine husbandry and space allotment include the following:

1) Candidate must isolate Wyoming toads from other amphibians in the collection through designated biosecure housing and quarantine.
2) Candidate must commit space for at least four age cohorts totaling 20-40 toads, breeding transfers and pre-release tadpole holding.
3) Candidate must receive USFWS permit to acquire the federally listed toad prior to participation in the SSP.
4) Candidate must comply with the service and SSP guidelines for the recovery program.

It’s a privilege for an institution to be able to participate in species recovery efforts. It comes with much responsibility, and often an additional investment in resources include additional staff and/or construction of biosecure facilities.

Regardless, the herpetologists at the Como Zoo much appreciate the opportunity to participate in this captive breeding program for Wyoming toads as an institution new to the program.


Keeper Bree Barney, Como Zoo lead Wyoming toad keeper working with captive Wyoming toads.

Photo courtesy of Como Zoo

The species, once classified as extinct in the wild, owes a bit of gratitude to AZA zoo member institutions for their breeding and recovery efforts.

And it’s not just the big conservation research centers making a difference. Several of the smaller facilities like the Como Zoo are solicited by the AZA SSP programs to participate based on breeding success with closely related species, and trained staff, among other factors.


Photo courtesy of Como Zoo

In the Mid 1990s, the Wyoming toad population was declared “Extinct in the Wild” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Zoos had already mobilized to restore this Bufo species which is described as the size of a golf ball. With the help of zoos, thousands of tadpoles have been reared and reintroduced to the wild at sites within the known range of the toad in the Laramie Basin since 2003.

Zoo participation was planned in the USFWS and Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s original draft for a recovery plan. In 1996 a Species Survival Plan was approved.

Today, seven public living institutions (Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Detroit Zoo, Como Zoo, Mississippi River Museum, Henry Doorly Zoo, and Toledo Zoo) and two USFWS facilities in Wyoming (Redbuttes Environmental, Laramie; and Saratoga National Fish Hatchery, Saratoga) participate in the captive breeding project.

There are other facilities that participate as advisory entities, but do not currently house the toads. For example, the Memphis Zoo has participating advisory staff for the program in residence at their institution, but they do not have Wyoming toads anywhere in the collection. The Toronto Zoo is slated to participate in the program as a breeding facility, but they do not yet have any toads either.

Species coordinator for the Wyoming Toad SSP, Val Hornyak, of the Toledo Zoo’s Department of Herpetology, works with these institutions to establish breeding colonies that prepare healthy and genetically sustainable populations of toads for release back into the wild. Last year Val noted in the third quarterly report of Amphibian Conservation, a publication of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, that “a total of 20,438 Bufo (Anaxyrus) baxteri tadpoles and toadlets were released back into the wild at Safe Harbor locations in the Laramie Basin — a new record for the [Wyoming Toad Recovery effort].”

Val went on to report that Volunteers from AZA zoos, USFWS, Wyoming Game and Fish, Bureau of Land Management, and other entities were trained by USFWS personnel to weigh, measure, swab, and otherwise check and document the toad population at Mortenson.

The Wyoming toad’s historic range was within 50 kilometers of Laramie. The toad was a common inhabitant of flood plains and slow moving surface water sources (e.g., freshwater ponds) within the region until the 1970s when, among other things, aerial spraying of the insecticide, Fenthion, in copious supply led to rapid decline of the Wyoming toad population.

By 1987, after the species had been listed as endangered by the USFWS for three years, the Wyoming toad was presumed extinct.

That year a healthy and viable population was discovered at Mortenson Lake.

In an effort to protect and manage the population, The Nature Conservancy bought the land surrounding the lake and additional wetland habitat in the region. The USFWS subsequently bought the wetland area which is now part of federal wildlife refuge, the Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge opened in 1993, but is currently closed to the public. The protected preserve is located southwest of Laramie, Wyoming, and encompasses four high-elevation lakes (Laramie Plains Lakes) on an area comprised of 1,776 acres.

In 2001 an informal consortium of specialists spearheading recovery efforts for the toad was replaced by representatives of conservation entities appointed by the USFWS. The Wyoming Toad Recovery team includes representatives from the USFWS, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the University of Wyoming, Laramie Rivers Conservation District, Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, and representation from landowner/ranchers. They have been tasked with continuing to coordinate protection, research and recovery efforts for the toad.

As the species coordinator for the SSP, and thus the AZA representative, Val coordinates not only the captive breeding program but also aspects of toad conservation that include habitat preservation, sorta situ (in situ/ex situ) conservation initiatives, public education, captive propagation, and in this case reintroduction into the wild.

In an effort to maintain genetic diversity, the SSP, with the help of a studbook keeper and a population manager for captive species, studies the genealogy and demography of the captive population to make breeding recommendations. The holding space and breeding success of a population are also factored in, as is release potential.




Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.


The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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