By Mason Lee
Senior Project Coordinator, University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute
Dogs and toads generally do not mix well—the toads’ parotoid glands produce a toxin that can be dangerous to dogs if ingested. But USFWS and the Wyoming Toad Recovery Team (WTRT) is testing a theory this summer that man’s best friend might be a good friend to the Wyoming toad, as well.
The Wyoming toad (Bufo baxteri), a glacial relic species endemic to the Laramie Plains in Albany County, has been considered extinct in the wild since 1989 when the last ten known toads were taken into captivity to establish breeding populations in zoological institutions around the country. The WTRT has been releasing captive-bred tadpoles for over 20 years back into the Laramie Plains and began releasing adult toads in addition to the tadpoles in 2015.
Monitoring the toad and the success of these releases is difficult because the cryptic Wyoming toad prefers to remain buried in mud, in small mammal burrows, or under thick layers of thatch, making it difficult for human surveyors to visually detect the toads. It has been suggested that toads are visible to human surveyors less than 17% of the time, which leads to the potential for severe under-estimation of the Wyoming toad population. That’s where man’s best friend comes in. Trained canines have the capability to enhance detection of released and wild-produced toads because they rely on their noses, rather than their eyes, to tell them where the toads are.
Around 25 interested citizens and their dogs will participate in intensive trainings this summer under the tutelage of Paul Bunker, owner of Chiron K9. Paul has over 30 years of experience in canine behavior and training and has trained citizen volunteers for other conservation detection projects. After three months of training, the dogs and their handlers will undergo a final evaluation to make sure that they are ready for field deployment in August. USFWS and the WTRT is hopeful that the dogs will enhance the recovery of the Wyoming toad by allowing biologists to more accurately document the population status of the species and thus monitor its progress towards recovery.