Houston Toad Clings to Survival in Bastrop

Worldwide study lists local amphibian as candidate for extinction

<i>(Image courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)</i>
(Image courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Residents of that so-called desired development zone east of Austin have one less reason to cheer about the building boom about to engulf them: A recent study named Bastrop County one of 595 "centers of imminent extinction" worldwide. In other words, unless dramatic new conservation efforts are immediately enacted, the study predicted a sad end to the three-decade effort to protect the endangered Houston toad.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science and drew on data from the World Conservation Union. It cited habitat loss as the greatest threat to the amphibians, although habitat fragmentation and invasive species also take their toll as toads also get squished by cars, lose native grasses in which they like to hop about, and, in what is potentially the most pitiful fate that could befall an amphibian, preyed upon by fire ants. (The fire ants, which are not native to Texas, also kill insect populations the toads like to eat.) Although the toad was the first amphibian to make the federal endangered species list nearly 30 years ago, barely 2,000 toads are known to remain, concentrated around Bastrop and Buescher state parks, where – despite their idyllic address – their population has shown continued declines. Although toads used to be found in several other East Texas counties, the study reported that sightings have grown increasingly rare, and more research is needed into the fate of toad populations outside Bastrop County.

Locally, some promising efforts are under way. Envision Central Texas has called for concentrating development throughout the five-county central Texas region in a way that protects as much rural and open space as possible. Meanwhile, Bastrop County landowners and conservationists have been working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to develop a habitat conservation plan to facilitate broad participation in toad-protection efforts. According to Tom Dureka of the Pines and Prairies Land Trust, however, the plan is a good year-and-a-half away from enactment. Still, he believes every effort is necessary to protect the creature he prefers to call the Lost Pines Toad (since it has long since been eradicated in Houston). "Frankly, this is the last bastion on the planet for the amphibian," he said. "It's up to us to ensure its survival or witness its final collapse."

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