Odds that the Wyoming toad will survive the 1990s greatly improved when The Nature Conservancy bought the 1,800 acres that the 80 or so adult toads left in the world call home.
Once considered extinct, the red wart-covered amphibians were rediscovered in 1987 by a fisherman in Mortensen Lake, south of Laramie."He knew immediately what it was," recalled Patty Swanson, who with her husband sold the 1,800-acre chunk of their Albany County ranch to the conservancy. "We don't have any toads at Laramie otherwise. . . . No other ones anyplace else that they know of, although there used to be a lot of them in the Laramie Valley."
When the Nature Conservancy learned of the discovery, its researchers rushed to the area. After biologists mapped the toads' habitat in and around the 80-acre lake, the conservancy began to negotiate with the Swansons. The sale was closed early this year; the selling price was not disclosed.
Now, with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the conservancy hopes to rebuild the toads' population to the point where they can be reintroduced elsewhere in the state.
Chris Garber, a zoologist with the conservancy, said that two years ago about a dozen "subadult" toads were taken to the Game and Fish Department's wildlife research center at Sybille Canyon, and last fall 15 juveniles were taken there.
"They're hibernating right now," he said. Researchers plan this spring to try breeding the toads in captivity with those from two years ago.
In addition to the breeding project, last summer biologists working with the conservancy began counting toads and photographing and identifying each one, which is possible because they have unique color and wart patterns.
Garber said the identification process will help biologists determine the toads' mortality rate.
"Since we can identify each of the toads, we can hopefully year-to-year identify them and determine survivability," he said.
Another question biologists hope to be able to answer with additional research is how toads spend their lives.
"No one knows for certain where it spends the cold Wyoming winter," said Garber. "It breeds and lays its eggs in the weed-covered, shallow waters of the lake in early June. The `toadlets' emerge in July. During the `toad roundup' of 1990, 80 adults and 200 hatchling toads were found."
While some might wonder about the interest in saving the toads, conservancy officials say the lack of information surrounding the amphibians makes them a valuable resource.
"Like a lot of these rare species, people just don't know a lot about it," said Dave Neary, who works in the conservancy's Lander office. "There may be benefits to man that just haven't been investigated yet.
For the immediate future, the toads' habitat will be closed to the public, although educational trips can be organized through the conservancy.
As for the fisherman who discovered the toad, he and the fishing club he belongs to will be able to continue using the lake for the immediate future.