When we think of Kootenay wildlife, it’s usually the iconic land mammals such as grizzlies and elk that immediately come to mind. Small, sleek amphibians tend not to have the same popular appeal, however these cold-blooded vertebrates face many of the same challenges and risks that other wildlife do — if not more, since they depend on both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. This couldn’t be more true than for the endangered Northern Leopard Frog.
Once abundant across Western Canada, Northern Leopard Frog populations declined sharply in the 1970s and 80s, so much so that the B.C. population is classified as a species at risk facing imminent local extinction.
The last remaining breeding population in B.C. is located in the Creston Valley, within the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area (CVWMA), making this area a hotspot for research and re-population efforts led by B.C.’s Northern Leopard Frog Recovery Team. This team is made up of government and non-government biologists, stakeholders and community members who are working together as part of a federal species at risk strategy to save what’s considered one of the most at-risk species in the province.
“This species of frog is like a card in a card castle. It’s disappearance may not cause a huge change immediately, but when you keep removing cards (or species), everyone knows what eventually happens! This is why we need to protect all of the species we can,” said Marc-Andre Beaucher, Head of Conservation Programs for the CVWMA.
Recognizable by the large rounded dark spots with light coloured rings covering their backs and legs (which gives them their name), Northern Leopard Frogs are predominantly green, and the females are usually larger than the males. Northern Leopard Frogs play an important ecological role as both a predator (of insects) and prey (to herons, fish, turtles and more). And, like all frogs, they help transfer nutrients from aquatic to terrestrial environments and act as indicators of healthy wetlands.
Shortly after the ice has melted in early spring, Northern Leopard Frogs emerge from their overwintering sites and begin breeding in aquatic habitats. Females can deposit up to 7000 eggs (considered one “egg mass”) and, in ideal conditions, tadpoles emerge in roughly two weeks. Two to three months later as small frogs, they move into summer foraging habitat in moist upland meadows to feed on a variety of insects. Typically, Northern Leopard Frogs live for a maximum of four to five years.
It’s this reliance on different habitats that makes them particularly susceptible to habitat loss and fragmentation, and drought. As part of the Kootenay Conservation Program (KCP)’s Kootenay Connect project, the CVWMA has been focusing on improving Northern Leopard Frog habitat within wetlands in the Duck Lake Nesting Area located at the south end of Kootenay Lake, and the work done to date has delivered immediate benefits.
The main focus of the CVWMA’s multi-year Northern Leopard Frog Enhancement Project has been to restore open water breeding habitat and water flow for the frogs. Water in the nesting area wasn’t distributing evenly due to excessive vegetation, and critical areas were drying up too early in the summer, potentially affecting frog development and growth. In 2019, the first year of enhancement activities, the project removed overgrown vegetation choking 1,500 metres of channel, so water could move around and spread out evenly throughout the area. As soon as the excessive vegetation was removed, the wetlands filled with water, transforming the restored areas into shallow, open water habitat ideal for breeding.
The following year in fall 2020, the focus of the project shifted to improving management of the water levels in the Duck Lake Nesting Area. Outdated, failing water management infrastructure was removed and replaced with newer, more durable infrastructure. The upgrades have allowed the CVWMA to more effectively maintain the water levels in the restored channels, ensuring adequate shallow water habitat for breeding, maintaining suitable water levels for tadpole development, and allowing for migration between breeding and overwintering sites.
Annual monitoring of the Creston Northern Leopard Frogs is carried out by a team led by the Ministry of Forests Lands Natural Resources and Rural Development (FLNRORD) with funding from the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program. By spring 2020, the FLNRORD Team found the third highest number of egg masses since 2000 (39 in 2014, 26 in 2015, and 24 in 2020). In spring 2021, 31 egg masses were found. A portion of the 2020 and 2021 numbers were found in the nearby Six Mile Slough.
“It’s very encouraging to see the number of egg masses above 20 for the past two years, including more egg masses in Six Mile Slough. We need to keep helping the frogs as much as possible because the effects of climate change will likely be very challenging to mitigate in the coming years,” said Beaucher. “Adding water to the Duck Lake Nesting Area was especially critical this summer with the hot temperatures.”
“These immediate habitat improvements in Creston as part of Kootenay Connect have created such a quick response in increasing the recovery of this population of rare frogs,” said Kootenay Connect Project Manager Marcy Mahr. “More leopard frog egg masses mean more froglets and future breeding frogs and, importantly, also allows for more eggs and tadpoles to be reintroduced to other recovery sites in our region.”
As part of the Northern Leopard Frog recovery strategy, the Calgary Zoo coordinates wild-to-wild translocations from Creston to a reintroduction site in the Columbia Wetlands in an effort to restore a breeding population there.
KCP, in partnership with many organizations and additional funders, received federal Environment and Climate Change Canada funding for Kootenay Connect, which is focusing on species at risk recovery for four years (2019-2023) in four focal areas: the Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, the Columbia Wetlands, the Wycliffe Wildlife Corridor in the East Kootenay, and the Bonanza Biodiversity Corridor in the Slocan Valley of the West Kootenay.
“The funding obtained through Kootenay Connect has allowed us to implement projects that we may not have been able to carry out otherwise. Every little bit of funding we can get is of tremendous help for this species,” said Beaucher.