The environment of the Spring Creek Preserve here in Wyoming is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before – and it is something that I am unlikely to have the opportunity to study in-depth again. That’s why, when choosing the question for my independent research project, I wanted to focus on the prairie ecosystem. Despite appearing rather visually barren, the prairie is full of ecological interest and intrigue.
My research was centered around the Wyoming toad (Anaxyrus baxteri) – a small species of toad that is extinct in the wild. In the not-so-distant past, the Wyoming toad flourished in the Laramie Basin. Populations declined rapidly, and the toad was declared extinct in the wild in 1991. Since then, recovery groups have established captive breeding programs and rehabilitative efforts to protect this species of toad and begin the process of reintroduction in the wild. Today, the toad has a population at Mortenson Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which is located 40 miles from Pitt’s Spring Creek Preserve. I decided to conduct a habitat analysis of the water sources on the preserve to see if there may be sites that have potential for reintroduction of this endangered species. I conducted this analysis based on a few key factors of the toad habitat – food presence, water quality, shelter availability, and predation potential.
I chose four sites on the preserve to assess for viability – essentially, the only water sources on the entire property. At each of these sites, I established three zones at equidistant points around the pond to collect data. My first step at each site was to dig five pitfall traps to assess the presence of insects. These insects, such as ants and beetles, are an essential food source for adult toads and are necessary for habitat viability. I then assessed the plant diversity and density of the littoral zone and the shoreline using a Daubenmire frame, which is a standardized area for analysis of vegetation. Toad tadpoles use littoral zone plants as shelter and adult toads live both on and offshore, so plant presence is a vital component of habitat viability. I also collected light meter readings and shade cover percentage from the surface of the water to see how much light the tadpoles would be receiving. After the plant analysis, I assessed the water quality by recording the depth, temperature, pH, and salinity. These factors all would impact the survival potential of tadpoles and adults. The last portion of my data collection was to conduct a macroinvertebrate survey of the water source, which I did by sweeping a net through the littoral zone and sieving out the mud and debris, leaving behind the aquatic organisms. These organisms have the potential to be either a source of food or a source of predation, and analyzing the species composition will be a vital part of my data analysis.
Overall, I am very excited about my preliminary data. While this project cannot provide a definitive answer about if the toad would be able to be reintroduced on the preserve, this could provide information about this endangered species as well as the viability of other amphibian species in the waterways of the Pitt property. I tromped through knee-deep mud, stepped on more prairie dog droppings than I thought was possible, and nearly got eaten alive by mosquitoes – all in the name of field work. Conservation is an area that is important to me, so having this opportunity to conduct an assessment of a habitat such as this one has been incredibly exciting and I can’t wait to continue this type of field work in the future.