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Chelsea Coady: Piecing together amphibian habitat and populations in the Peace

Amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders are often overlooked by the public and are certainly not as majestic or charismatic as other wildlife. They are also relatively under-studied and we’re here to change that.
salamander
Digital images and skin pattern recognition technology is used to identify individuals. For Long-toed Salamanders (pictured), their brightly-coloured, yet variable, topside is photographed.

coady

Amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders are often overlooked by the public and are certainly not as majestic or charismatic as other wildlife. They are also relatively under-studied and we’re here to change that. We’re funding what we believe to be the most comprehensive amphibian research project in Northern B.C.

We—the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP)—are a partnership between BC Hydro, the province of B.C., Fisheries and Oceans Canada, First Nations, and public stakeholders, and we fund projects to conserve and enhance fish and wildlife impacted by existing BC Hydro dams. We strive to fund technically sound projects, based on science.

Gathering solid baseline data and using rigorous, scientific methodologies is the approach being used on the Amphibian Wetland Connectivity project being funded by the FWCP and delivered by DWB Consulting, now in year three of four.

The project’s goals are to gather data on amphibian movements and habitat use, which will inform species conservation and habitat enhancement. An equally important goal of this project is to actively engage with communities to promote conservation: research has shown that raising awareness and sharing knowledge can lead to changes in management practices and, ultimately, increased amphibian breeding and numbers.

Amphibians have been around for about 365 million years, but in the last few decades there have been significant decreases in amphibian populations worldwide. The most significant cause for declines is undoubtedly habitat loss and fragmentation. An extensive amount of wetland habitat was lost when the reservoirs in the Peace Region were created. Because amphibians need wetlands to breed, understanding ecological function and connectivity between important wetland habitats within the region is a priority for us and is one of the reasons why we’re funding this project. Furthermore, conserving species-at-risk is also a priority for us. Western Toads are a focal species in this project, and are a federal species-at-risk.

In addition to the Western Toad, the Long-toed Salamander, Spotted Frog, Wood Frog, and Boreal Chorus Frog are also in our Peace Region. While relatively few in species richness, the combined total weight—their biomass—of amphibians far exceeds all other vertebrates on the landscape. As stated earlier, they are relatively under-studied compared to megafauna, yet their influence is huge, especially with regards to the environmental services they provide, such as cycling nutrients through the ecosystem.

Over the past three years, the project has been locating and capturing amphibians to mark them for unique identification throughout the year. This process also helps to see what habitats they move within, how they grow, and move from year to year.

New science techniques are also part of this project. Attaching passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags to amphibians has been used for many years to determine distribution, but now digital photos, together with skin-pattern recognition software, are being used for quick and accurate identification.

Even with emerging science techniques, there remain significant challenges when implementing amphibian research. Only about five per cent of the population may be visible at any one time, since many spend large amounts of time underground. Then there is the small window of opportunity during the critical breeding period, barely two weeks for most amphibians in the north.

Outreach and education with First Nations and the public is a big component of the work. Nak’azdli Whut'en First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene Nation are involved in gathering field data and supporting the community outreach and education goals. Earlier this month, Mark Thompson with DWB Consulting visited Tsay Keh Dene and spoke with elders and school children to initiate a local amphibian monitoring program. This type of community outreach is needed to gain support for this work, and future conservation and enhancement projects. Last week, Mark presented in Mackenzie as part of UNBC’s public presentation series, funded by FWCP. Click here to watch the presentation.

Climate change is a big threat to these critters. After all, it is not so much the large- and medium-sized waterbodies they rely on for habitat connectivity, but the smaller ponds and wetlands, which are being lost with warming temperatures. This project will improve our collective understanding of amphibians in the north, and will support efforts to ensure their populations remain healthy and sustainable into the future.

Learn more about the projects we fund, and how you can apply for a grant at fwcp.ca.

Chelsea Coady is the Peace Region manager for the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. Her column will appear bimonthly in the Alaska Highway News. Have a question? Email her at chelsea.coady@bchydro.com.