Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 8.9.07

Clever Beings
Even warty toads have their finer points

A toad. A big, fat, warty toad with a white stripe down its back. What compels six of us to search for boreal toads (aka western toads) for five days, 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level in southern Utah mountains?

“Just regard it as a vacation,” Kevin Wheeler suggests to us the first afternoon. Kevin is toad trip leader and amphibian biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

His suggestion is a good start. While southern Utah’s lowland redrock bakes, we’re mildly chilly morning and evening and perfect mid-day. We’re constantly around water: lakes, ponds, creeks, sedge meadows. We walk slowly in pairs through damp meadows and pond edges looking for a glistening body, a lumbering movement, this very particular toad. During our searches we variously see a pair of young badgers, a gang of 500 mud puppies (neonate tiger salamanders), spruce grouse babies, swarms of glinting blue damselflies, mule deer fawns, ducks, chorus frogs, a huge beaver pond we’d not noticed before.

And, when we’re really lucky, a boreal toad. Or three, peering out from under the bark of a fallen log. You reach out quickly to catch a female crawling over a wet twig. If the toad you turn over in your palm chirps, it’s a male. A dozen or 200 boreal toad tadpoles are negotiating between plants poking up at pond edges. Boreal toad belly tracks are in a dusty road edge between two ponds.

Of course, there are those moments that are inconvenient. You’re moving camp every morning. You’re slogging over to a pond, and suddenly you’re hip deep in marsh muck and realize your computer’s data stick and data are in the muck with you. Sedges sometimes wield sharp edges on your sandaled feet. Two families (or maybe they’re all one) decide to park their giant RVs near your sleeping bag at midnight and level them with headlights swinging and rev up their ATVs at 5:30 the next morning.

There are some sad moments. You come to a reservoir where you had found boreal toads, and ORV drivers have illegally done wheelies in that spot. You come upon a slug of cows blissfully eating the tops off every little aspen trying to grow up among a stand of dying elders. You go to three ponds in a row that had a few boreal toads in earlier years and find none.

On the fifth day you hand in your data sheets. Location, air and water temperature, number of boreal toads or tadpoles seen, other amphibians noted, dominant vegetation, anything else you think is relevant. And then the six of you scatter.

But you’ve got boreal toads and their near-endangered status and welfare imprinted in your memory and heart. You’ve become their advocate in a culture that vaguely remembers the old belief that toads caused warts and the story of a toad that became a prince. While some regard toads as gross, and others (particularly children) find them oddly fascinating, comparatively few would figure we need toads. Especially any given kind of toad, for instance, a boreal toad.

And maybe boreal toads are expendable. And the ponds they live in; and the beaver that make those ponds, modulating the rush of water off mountains; and any public lands rules that would protect toads or ponds or beaver or aspen.

One year I sat silently on a shore in Alaska’s Tebenkof Bay Wilderness, listening to humpback whales breathing. I once ate lunch at the base of a Douglas fir in which a placid spotted owl perched 10 feet above. I spent days in Hells Canyon with two Idaho botanists making notes on tagged individuals of a small, uncharismatic endangered plant called Spalding’s catchfly. In Eugene’s wetlands, I’ve watched small, endangered Fender’s blue butterflies float above threatened Kincaid’s lupine plants and found the butterflies’ single, luminous, white eggs on the underside of the lupine’s umbrella-like leaves.

No species, endangered or not, has failed to catch my heart once I’ve met one of its individuals in person. Each species is a clever being, trying to live on this Earth. Of course, none of the species care whether we humans survive. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s our special privilege as humans to stand up for fat, warty toads as well as all our other relatives. A vacation, indeed.

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at