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Wildlife

Ranchers, government work together for toad recovery

Written by Liz LeSatz

By Liz LeSatz, WLR Correspondent

Laramie – “Endangered species” is a term that can have a negative association with many Wyoming agriculturists. However, due to an agreement between the federal government and ranchers, Albany County landowners may be more open to welcoming an endangered species on their property.
    In order to further recovery efforts for the Wyoming toad, an endangered species, a Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) between the Laramie Rivers Conservation District (LRCD) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was signed Fall 2004. The SHA allows private landowners to have endangered species on their property without repercussions from the government for unintentionally killing a toad, according to LRCD Manager Tony Hoch. He says the agreement was signed prior to the first reintroduction of toads in June 2005 and took around two years to complete.
    “[The Safe Harbor Agreement] is an important precedent,” Hoch says. “It is the first agreement in the region and is an example of how people can deal with endangered species.”
    As part of the SHA, LRCD holds the “incidental take permit” for Albany County and area landowners can enter into the agreement with the district, Hoch says. The agreement protects the landowner as long as no intentional harm comes to the Wyoming toad. The SHA also protects adjacent landowners against liability for unintentionally killing Wyoming toads on their property.
    With an SHA, recovery efforts for the Wyoming toad, accomplished largely through reintroductions, have expanded in the Laramie River Basin. The Buford Foundation is a ranch that reintroduced the species under the SHA in 2005. One other traditional rancher in Albany County is also involved in the agreement, according to Hoch.
    “The only real change made after the reintroduction of the toad was the timing of grazing, not the amount of grazing,” Art Anderson, volunteer manager for the Buford Foundation property, says.
    The Wyoming toad was thought to have gone extinct in the 1970s, according to Anderson, who is the former Wyoming toad coordinator for FWS. A fisherman rediscovered the species in 1987 at Mortenson Lake on rancher Charlie Swanson’s property.
    The Nature Conservancy later purchased the portion of Swanson’s property that contained Mortenson Lake and eventually the FWS bought the property and created the Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
    Upon selling the land, Swanson wanted to buy the grazing rights. However, he was initially denied access.
    “At the time I said ‘if something isn’t broken, don’t fix it,’” says Swanson. “This was the only place in the world the toad survived and it survived with my cows.”
    The FWS originally thought it would be best to reduce grazing around the lake, but the toad started to avoid heavily vegetated areas, according to Anderson. Ideal Wyoming toad habitat includes short grass and warm, shallow water, according to FWS.
    “Because I wasn’t grazing and irrigating out of the lake, the grass was growing too tall and the lake-shore was getting too cold,” Swanson says.
    The FWS then asked Swanson to return the area to his previous management practices.
    Since the discovery of the species, the FWS has learned a lot about the Wyoming toad and its habitat requirements, Anderson says. Reintroduction of the species does not seem to affect a landowner’s existing management practices. The only change to grazing management may be the timing of existing practices but Anderson says the modifications should not be detrimental.
    Haying and irrigating practices also see minimal affects, according to Anderson. The Wyoming toad is located in wet areas so producers would not normally hay those locations due to risk of getting equipment stuck. Irrigating is also beneficial to the toad because eggs and tadpoles develop in standing water from late-May to mid-July.
    “There are not many existing land-use practices in the Laramie Plains that would need to be modified to protect the toad,” he says. “Good grazing practices go hand-in-hand with the management...As long as wetlands are maintained and landowners don’t abuse areas, the toad creates no impact to the operation.”
    “The willingness of the staff in the FWS field office to work with the landowners is very important,” says Hoch. He sees potential for similar opportunities with Preble’s mice, should they ever be re-listed in Wyoming, and the sage grouse.