Eyebrows were raised last week when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released its economic analysis for the federally endangered arroyo toad, which included a $720 million budget for proposed critical habitats throughout Southern California, and a revised 2009 proposal for the endangered toad’s conservation plan. The proposal designates about 112,765 acres of land towards critical habitat zones across Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, and San Diego counties.
The arroyo toad (Bufo californicus) is limited to slow moving streams or rivers in all stages of its life, and stagnant ponds with sandy banks during breeding season. These toads require vegetated stream banks and terraces—where the toads burrow in the dryer months—linking populations to upland habitats where they forage. It has been increasingly difficult to conserve transition zones between terrestrial and aquatic habitats as agriculture and other encroachments onto their habitats spreads higher in the watershed.
In addition to the economic analysis, Fish and Wildlife released a five-year plan updating the toad’s current status. “Arroyo toads have disappeared from approximately 75 percent of the species’ historically occupied habitat in California,” the plan reads. “The arroyo toad is threatened by habitat destruction, changes in river hydrology influenced by construction of dams and water diversions, alteration of riparian wetland habitats by agriculture and urbanization, overgrazing, mining activities, and introduced species.”
However, the update ends with conflicting messages. The report concludes that the toad’s status should be downlisted from endangered to threatened, a less urgent category. It also states that there is no evidence that populations have increased since the species was first listed 17 years ago.
The surveys do provide evidence that direct threats to the species have minimized since their listing, but the toads still face the threats affecting the pockets of land they remain isolated in.
UCSB Professor Sam Sweet explains, “All of the remaining populations are mutually isolated, and nearly all are contending with arrays of exotic predators, disease (chytrid fungi) and competitors (such as New Zealand mud snails); and every one is subject to catastrophic events.”
One of the more recent catastrophic events for local arroyo toad populations was the Zaca wildfire, and the methods used to contain it in upland habitats. According to Los Padres Forest Watch, “Unfortunately, recent wildfire suppression efforts on the Los Padres have significantly degraded some of the best remaining arroyo toad habitats, especially in Piru Creek, where bulldozers cleared large areas of land. Some estimates place the arroyo toad mortality at as much as 50%.”
Professor Sweet also mentions that since the listing, there have been some beneficial changes for arroyo toads in the county. These include, he said, the “closure of five riverside campgrounds in the Los Padres where vehicle traffic after dark was killing adult toads, seasonal or permanent closure of several road segments that facilitated OHV trespass into creeks and riverbeds, and altering the operating agreements for Pyramid Dam (Piru Creek) to match natural flow rates.”
As for Fish and Wildlife’s proposal to designate critical habitat zones for the arroyo toad – well, that comes with mixed reviews from both conservationist and land owners. Unfortunately, the service has a reputation for designating critical habitat zones in areas that don’t always directly affect the species recovery, according to critics, and tends to exclude federal and private lands where there are established populations.
The Fish and Wildlife proposal does come with a 30-day opportunity for the public to weigh in with comments about conservation methods, budget costs, and revision plans. Land owners and conservationist are hoping that the public will urge Fish and Wildlife to reexamine designated critical habitat zones, and include areas aimed to directly benefit the species for population recovery. The end date for the comments board is July 29, and opinions may be posted on regulations.gov Fish and Wildlife’s website. Until then, the arroyo toad will be counting its days.