Hop by hop, the Chiricahua leopard frog is making a comeback in Rim Country streams and stock ponds, thanks to an effort by the U.S. Forest Service.
So if you’re exploring Rim Country creeks like the East Verde, Tonto Creek and Fossil Creek — that hop and flop at the edge of the creek may signal a rare, wildlife success story.
A joint effort by the Forest Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department in the past eight years has plopped into waterways statewide some 10,000 frogs raised at the Phoenix Zoo and elsewhere.
That includes another 1,700 released this summer in 23 locations in the Tonto National Forest.
“When we first started, we had four sites in Tonto National Forest that had frogs,” said Mike Sredl, a project coordinator for Game and Fish. “Now we’ve easily doubled that. In Payson we will have gone from two spots where we saw frogs in the wild in 2006 to seven sites where you can go today, take a walk around a pond or drainage and see anywhere from two to 22 frogs jump in the water.”
Two closely related species of leopard frogs once thrived in streams and ponds all over the state. The Payson area serves as a boundary between the ranges of the two endangered species — the Chiricahua leopard frog to the south and the northern leopard frog at the higher elevations along the Mogollon Rim.
The frogs used to live in at least 400 aquatic sites in the Southwest, but now hang on in fewer than 80 — the sharpest decline of any species of leopard frog. They’ve been hard hit by the destruction of dewatering of most of the streams, marshes and springs in Arizona.
The native frogs have also been hard hit by introduced predators like bullfrogs and crayfish and the mysterious spread of fungal diseases.
Dependent on hard-pressed riparian areas and porous skin that provides little protection against pollutants in the water, biologists maintain that frogs are the canary in the coal mine for environmental changes. Studies have turned up deformities in frogs likely related to pollution in 42 states and one-third of the 42 species of amphibians in the U.S. are in decline.
Prodded by lawsuits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the frog as threatened in 2002, which helped clear the way for the recovery effort.
The success of the reintroduction efforts of the Forest Service have relied in part on winning the cooperation of cattle ranchers in the region, since in some areas the frogs have done well in stock ponds. In other areas, ranchers have agreed to fence off springs and stream stretches as a refuge for the frog. The fencing keeps cattle out of the riparian areas where frogs are making a comeback.
The effort has relied on help from the Phoenix Zoo, which raises the frogs from egg masses gathered in the forest. The eggs hatch and the frogs get through their vulnerable tadpole stage, safe from bullfrogs, fish and crayfish.
“The Tonto National Forest has one of the biggest populations of leopard frogs,” said Fred Wong, forest biologist for the Tonto National Forest.
“As land managers, we coordinate with the land permittees to find suitable places to release the frogs. The permittee involved in this release was especially supportive of the program.”
The leopard frogs are “Ranid” or “true frogs.” They are excellent jumpers with long, webbed feet, horizontal pupils, smooth skin, and dorsolateral folds or raised glandular skin in an area between the back and sides. The frogs are an indicator of the forest’s health and serve as prey and predator in the ecosystem, Sredl said. “As adults, they eat frogs and other insects. As prey, they are preyed upon by a variety of organisms including snakes, small mammals and black hawks.”
Pleasant Valley Ranger District’s Cherry Creek was one of the locations where frogs and tadpoles were introduced. Acting ranger staff Sean Brown coordinates with grazing allotment permittees in the area and said they have been supportive of the program.
“It has been a cultural shift,” Brown said. “Last time I was out with a rancher, we had some really positive interactions and he supported introducing as many frogs as possible. Overall, I would say everybody wants the frogs on the landscape. They just don’t want them to impact on their ranching operations.”
“That’s a pretty big deal for the rancher, because they need water for their livestock. I think that has been one of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome. We’re not looking to close off every water source on the forest to reintroduce the frog. We’re just trying to get core populations established. We’re trying to protect the egg masses so we can raise more frogs in the wild, so we can get the population on the upward turn on the bell curve, rather than on a downward cycle.”
Julia Camp, a wildlife biologist for the Pleasant Valley Ranger District, said some of the creek sites have shown to be productive from last year’s effort, one yielding five egg masses this year. At the Cherry Creek site, a large creek with several branches, Camp with several other team members helped introduce the frogs and tadpoles to their new home.
“This is one of those things that make you feel really good about your job,” Camp said. “After all of the paperwork, this is the exciting part that makes for a real pay-off. Even better is when you come back the next year and find an egg mass because you know that they’re breeding and hopefully at some point expanding to other sites.”