New Mexico

Gila Notes, May 2012
Tracking Super Frogs: What They Tell Us

“Whole populations are disappearing. Blink. They’re gone.”

-Martha Schumann Cooper
Southwest New Mexico Field Representative

What did I know about frogs a few years ago? That they are sensitive to pollution and that if a river is toxic, they grow extra legs or eyes. Like butterflies—other small and charismatic creatures—frogs tell us a lot about the environments where they live. 

But most Chiricahua leopard frogs in New Mexico are not living. They are dying. Whole populations are disappearing. Blink. They’re gone. 

Super Frogs to the Rescue?

Moreno Springs, a large (for New Mexico) spring adjacent to the Mimbres River, has what is considered the state's “second-most important Chiricahua leopard frog population,” according to the Chiricahua Leopard Frog Recovery Team.

The upper fingers of the spring are on Nature Conservancy land. The spring hosts a population of “super frogs,” so-called because these specimens aren’t dying as quickly as others.

Many of the Moreno Springs frogs somehow persist even after contracting Chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). Other populations don’t. Dr. Randy Jennings from Western New Mexico University doesn’t know if it’s a genetic or environmental thing. One factor may be that the water of the spring is slightly warmer than the nearby river. 

What to do about the super frog? And other populations of dying frogs?

Despair is one option. I recently declared casually, “The Mimbres is doomed.” It’s a small river, often de-watered for agriculture and impacted by lots of groundwater pumping in the area.

Climate change will only add stresses, like less water and more evaporation. I probably could more confidently have said, "The frogs are doomed." But these are beautiful little creatures, and I believe in fighting madly against their extinction. And so do others. 

Focus on Frogs

I recently spent three days in a cold, rock-walled meeting room talking about Chiricahua leopard frogs with scientists who specialize in frogs. I am not an expert, so this was pretty interesting.

We touched on topics like population genetics, which relates to questions about what small populations to breed and which to keep distinct.

What amazed me most is that people love these frogs. I was inspired. 

I now have deep respect for Jack, who works for the Bureau of Land Management and raises frogs in his backyard so that he can introduce new populations in southwest New Mexico. And Josh, who works for the Gila National Forest and is incredibly devoted to the few remaining frogs within the entire forest. And Randy, who has a frog tank in his backyard.

They talk about these frogs like they are their children. This is what species “recovery” is all about. 

I imagine that Randy and his herpetologist buddy Bruce, masquerading as adults, are actually six-year-old boys with buckets and sticks, walking along rivers poking for snakes and frogs. I can now better understand the appeal of their field work and how much passion is involved in looking for these beautiful and elusive creatures and tracking how populations fare from year to year. 

Process with a Purpose

What I get less excited about is paperwork.

Michelle Christman, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service official overseeing Chiricahua leopard frogs in New Mexico, knows bureaucracy better than I do. But having survived a Conservancy audit this past year, I also know the importance of filing and copying and emailing and calling.

Which brings me to the last part of this story: I went to the three-day "frog meeting" in order to line up help for Moreno Springs. And I got it. 

We collectively devised a comprehensive restoration plan for Moreno Springs that should improve the habitat for frogs and the endangered Chihuahua chub, a tiny fish found nowhere else on Earth.

The plan essentially calls for digging some potholes on the Conservancy portion of the spring and scooping out the two-to-three feet of silt that has accumulated in its main pool. Seems simple, right? I’ll spare you all the details, but this simple project could eat my lunch! 

So why do I want to embark on more filing, copying, emailing, calling and digging?

Because of these little, spotted frogs. For those on the periphery of the conservation field, you might not know that "single species" conservation is considered passé. Or that working on a tiny project (say, rehabilitating a spring instead of a vast landscape) is not so popular anymore. But, it feels important to me to disregard this trend. 

The pep talk I give myself about restoring Moreno Springs and working fiercely to help its endangered native frogs is that while the latter may not be keystone species or top predators, they are indicator species in their own way. They are not simply indicators of water quality, but of the declining number of wetlands left on the landscape. 

If I get to spend some time trying to protect and restore a tiny (even by New Mexico standards) patch of ground with fast-disappearing frogs and fish, it seems like a worthy endeavor—and a small act of hope that frogs, fish and wetlands will persist in this ever-changing world of ours.

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