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Toad's fate in landowners' hands


http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/

Amphibian's numbers shrink along with habitat
Seattle Post-Intelligencer(05/03/2005)
By LISA STIFFLER

BASTROP, Texas—After bouncing around in an SUV for a couple of hours under the blazing summer sun, making pit stops at grassy fields and experimental ponds, Mike Forstner reached ground zero at the Griffith League Ranch Boy Scout camp.

Ringed by loblolly pines with needles so long that you could knit scarves with them was a coffee-colored pond with gently sloping shores.

"This is it," the biologist in cowboy boots announced. "Little Big Horn for the Houston toad."

One of the first animals to win Endangered Species Act protections in 1970, the toads live in the "Lost Pines" -- an oasis of forestland in central Texas. But the oasis is shrinking, and so is the toad population.

They vanished from their namesake city in the 1960s. They have been wiped out in at least three Texas counties. The last significant population in all the world is in Bastrop County, which -- thanks to its proximity to the ballooning city of Austin -- is having its own development boom.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's solution has largely been to churn out carbon-copy miniature habitat conservation plans. They have issued dozens of construction permits for subdivisions around the county, covering nearly 1,300 acres.

But the plans are plagued by shortcomings.

Basic biological information about the toads is lacking, yet the plans sacrifice significant amounts of land to development. There are no clear triggers for increasing protection if new evidence shows that the toads need it. There is little government oversight to make sure the agreements are adhered to.

And so the region is being cross-stitched with roads. Houses are popping up all over, and with them come toad-hostile lawns, pets and pesticides. The toad's survival -- its population has shrunk to about 250 in Bastrop County -- rests with the private landowners, experts say.

The plans instruct landowners to limit development. They are told not to cut down trees or disturb wetlands and to try to control pesticide use. In most cases, each landowner pays $2,000 to compensate for land lost to homes, driveways and patios.


But there aren't any requirements for setting up preserves -- a key feature of nearly all habitat plans -- and a countywide permit coming up for approval also lacks this provision.

Instead, the new plan requires clusters of construction, or low-density housing that leaves more land untouched. It includes restoration projects and less-damaging logging and agricultural practices, Fish and Wildlife officials said. And it requires for the first time that the county monitor the toad population.

Local residents trying to save the toad say this is the best they can do.

"The problem is that Bastrop County, even though it's bustling, there isn't that much money here," said Tom Dureka, executive director of the Pines and Prairies Land Trust, a conservation group.

Steps have been taken to aid the amphibian. While not required by the plan, more than 1,800 acres have been set aside as preserves using habitat plan fees, federal grants, state funds and donations. Landowners are improving their property for toads under other programs as well. And residents are becoming more tolerant of the toads, said Bob Pine of Fish and Wildlife's Austin office.

"Ten years ago, if you talked about the toad, people would have probably told you they didn't care about it or were actively against it," he said. Now, "they are maybe seeing that's a good thing to have a species that's unique to their area they can have pride in."

But Forstner, a scientist at Texas State University in San Marcos, said it is going to be a challenge to prevent the toad from getting snuffed out.

And it may fall to the Boy Scouts and their 4,848-acre ranch to save the day.

Forstner is working with the Scouts to try to boost the toad's numbers by planting trees that provide shade and cover from predators. He and teams of students have slogged there night and day to learn more about the amphibians -- how much treeless grassland they will tolerate, what kinds of ponds they prefer, where the heck they disappear to when the summer heat cranks up.

"It's a practical and possible recovery," Forstner said. "It's going to take immense attention and effort."


http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/

 

Toad's fate in landowners' hands

Amphibian's numbers shrink along with habitat
Seattle Post-Intelligencer(05/03/2005)
By LISA STIFFLER

BASTROP, Texas—After bouncing around in an SUV for a couple of hours under the blazing summer sun, making pit stops at grassy fields and experimental ponds, Mike Forstner reached ground zero at the Griffith League Ranch Boy Scout camp.

Ringed by loblolly pines with needles so long that you could knit scarves with them was a coffee-colored pond with gently sloping shores.

"This is it," the biologist in cowboy boots announced. "Little Big Horn for the Houston toad."

One of the first animals to win Endangered Species Act protections in 1970, the toads live in the "Lost Pines" -- an oasis of forestland in central Texas. But the oasis is shrinking, and so is the toad population.

They vanished from their namesake city in the 1960s. They have been wiped out in at least three Texas counties. The last significant population in all the world is in Bastrop County, which -- thanks to its proximity to the ballooning city of Austin -- is having its own development boom.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's solution has largely been to churn out carbon-copy miniature habitat conservation plans. They have issued dozens of construction permits for subdivisions around the county, covering nearly 1,300 acres.

But the plans are plagued by shortcomings.

Basic biological information about the toads is lacking, yet the plans sacrifice significant amounts of land to development. There are no clear triggers for increasing protection if new evidence shows that the toads need it. There is little government oversight to make sure the agreements are adhered to.

And so the region is being cross-stitched with roads. Houses are popping up all over, and with them come toad-hostile lawns, pets and pesticides. The toad's survival -- its population has shrunk to about 250 in Bastrop County -- rests with the private landowners, experts say.

The plans instruct landowners to limit development. They are told not to cut down trees or disturb wetlands and to try to control pesticide use. In most cases, each landowner pays $2,000 to compensate for land lost to homes, driveways and patios.


But there aren't any requirements for setting up preserves -- a key feature of nearly all habitat plans -- and a countywide permit coming up for approval also lacks this provision.

Instead, the new plan requires clusters of construction, or low-density housing that leaves more land untouched. It includes restoration projects and less-damaging logging and agricultural practices, Fish and Wildlife officials said. And it requires for the first time that the county monitor the toad population.

Local residents trying to save the toad say this is the best they can do.

"The problem is that Bastrop County, even though it's bustling, there isn't that much money here," said Tom Dureka, executive director of the Pines and Prairies Land Trust, a conservation group.

Steps have been taken to aid the amphibian. While not required by the plan, more than 1,800 acres have been set aside as preserves using habitat plan fees, federal grants, state funds and donations. Landowners are improving their property for toads under other programs as well. And residents are becoming more tolerant of the toads, said Bob Pine of Fish and Wildlife's Austin office.

"Ten years ago, if you talked about the toad, people would have probably told you they didn't care about it or were actively against it," he said. Now, "they are maybe seeing that's a good thing to have a species that's unique to their area they can have pride in."

But Forstner, a scientist at Texas State University in San Marcos, said it is going to be a challenge to prevent the toad from getting snuffed out.

And it may fall to the Boy Scouts and their 4,848-acre ranch to save the day.

Forstner is working with the Scouts to try to boost the toad's numbers by planting trees that provide shade and cover from predators. He and teams of students have slogged there night and day to learn more about the amphibians -- how much treeless grassland they will tolerate, what kinds of ponds they prefer, where the heck they disappear to when the summer heat cranks up.

"It's a practical and possible recovery," Forstner said. "It's going to take immense attention and effort."