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Originally published September 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 23, 2008 at 7:57 PM

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State hopes frogs raised in captivity will help lead comeback in wild

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife hopes to jump-start a new population of Oregon spotted frogs, once abundant throughout Puget Sound country, with the release of about 500 of them at Fort Lewis wetlands.

Seattle Times staff reporter

FORT LEWIS, Pierce County — Sporting a radio transmitter no bigger than a raisin, the Oregon spotted frog leapt from its temporary Tupperware home and snugged deep in the soft, chocolaty muck.

After seven months of captive rearing, this frog, along with some 500 others, was free at last. The release was the first-ever of captively-reared endangered frogs by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which hopes to jump-start a new population of the frogs, once abundant throughout Puget Sound country.

Six of the Rana pretiosa were fitted with the radio transmitters, tied on with silk cords, to allow biologists to track their movements. All of the frogs were marked with a small bit of red-orange plastic slipped under their skin on their undersides to distinguish them.

"People may not see a lot of significance in one little frog, but this shows it's not all doom and gloom. It's not too late to make a difference. They've been given a chance," said Dave Ellis, deputy director of Northwest Trek in Eatonville, which raised the frogs from eggs captured by WDFW biologists last February.

"They are part of the web of life, and you can't remove even one strand without weakening the system."

From western pond turtles to pygmy rabbits, captive rearing and release is just one more method used by the department to re-prime habitats around the state bereft of species that used to thrive.

These frogs can live from two to five years in the wild, and were once abundant from southern British Columbia to northeastern California. But today, they persist in only two counties in Washington state, Thurston and Klickitat, because of habitat lost to development, invasive exotic predators, and disease.

As juveniles, Oregon spotted frogs commonly face death rates of up to 80 percent in the wild. Just about everything eats them, especially bullfrogs, exotic predators that thrive in the warm, shallow waters these frogs prefer.

Invasive plants, notably reed canary grass, also chokes out their habitat. And the shallow wetlands these frogs call home were among the first to be diked, drained, and filled in around Puget Sound for development.

The frogs are already believed to be absent from 90 percent of their historic range in Washington. Captive rearing is hoped to give them a head start that can boost survival rates, and restart a self-sustaining population at Fort Lewis.

The military reserve is home to some of the finest wetlands left in South Sound. Dailman Lake, with its associated wetlands and stream, seemed just right for the frogs, which took right to their new home Monday, plunging into the mud and zooming off in the water with a kick of their back legs.

Just two inches long, freckled with tiny brown spots, and delicately made with tiny nostrils, bright eyes, and dainty feet, the frogs were so perfectly camouflaged for their natural environment, it was hard to see them unless they moved.

First raised on a diet featuring kale and other vegetables, the frogs were graduated to crickets as they got bigger and... bigger. Fat and feisty, they were fed a double ration of crickets Sunday night to prepare them for their big day.

Biologists will track the six frogs with transmitters to learn their movements. They also will have to find them to replace the transmitter batteries before they wear down in less than a month.

Spotted frogs were listed as an endangered species by the state of Washington in 1997. The animals are also a candidate for federal protection.

The release was a cooperative effort, involving biologists from the U.S. Army, the fish and wildlife department, and help from a host of other entities, from Northwest Trek to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, among others.

Biologists will raise and release more frogs annually for five years, then evaluate the success of the program.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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