Endangered arroyo toads cling to existence in the Tehachapi Mountains
When biologist Ruben Ramirez wants to introduce people to his favorite amphibian, he takes them to a little oasis in the southwestern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains where an isolated colony of endangered arroyo toads clings to existence by their stout little toes.
It is a remote creek on U.S. Forest Service land offering all the creature comforts needed for the toads to avoid extirpation: shallow water, sandy banks and willows and buckwheat buzzing with insects to feed on. It is also free of dams and diversions and seldom visited by hikers and mountain bikers.
During a tour on Friday, it took Ramirez and fellow biologist Robert Haase only a few minutes to find several young arroyo toads bulking up on harvester ants in the area, which also teems with more common species: western toads, Pacific chorus frogs and California chorus frogs.
Ramirez requested that the exact location not be disclosed. “The less disturbance here the better,” he said as a youngster hopped past the tips of his hiking boots.
“This is one of the few sweet spots left in Southern California for this species,” Ramirez said. “So it’s an ideal place to bring groups of people who want to know more about this incredible amphibian I have been researching for 15 years. The goal of these 'toad walks’ is to provide people with the kind of information you can only get firsthand in the field.”
Most people learn about arroyo toads in news reports about legal skirmishes among environmental groups, developers and federal land managers over their fate.
“Unfortunately, people love this toador hate it,” Haase said. “For those subject to the economic impacts of dealing with an endangered amphibian, it’s an enemy. For those who want to keep remaining ecosystems intact, it’s a treasure.”
Meanwhile, the 3-inch-long toad’s fate remains uncertain. When Bufo californicus -- a small, buff-colored amphibian with dark spots and warts -- was listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1994, it had lost more than 75% of its historic habitat to development, mining, agriculture and predation by non-native species.
Today, the arroyo toad persists in 23 small, isolated populations including this one, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles.
The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to designate critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, creating an additional level of review for building and land-use permits.
But even within critical habitat, the arroyo toad faces threats that include fungal infections and predation by raccoons and non-native bullfrogs, and continues to figure in development battles across Southern California.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized designation of 98,366 acres of critical habitat for the arroyo toad from Monterey County to San Diego County, concluding a decade-long legal battle between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity.
In June, a U.S. District Court judge ordered three federal agencies to "take all necessary measures" to better protect 40 endangered species -- including the arroyo toad -- in four national forests in Southern California.
In July, however, avdvocates for the toad lost a court fight to spare a small population in Orange County’s Silverado Canyon from threats posed by a proposal to develop a large horse ranch in the area.
Dropping to his knees for a better view of a dime-size arroyo toad hunting insects in the shade of a willow tree, Ramirez said, “The fight to save these creatures is far from over. But at the end of the day, the best decisions will be based on the best available science collected in places like this.”
-- Louis Sahagun
Photo: An arroyo toad in the Tehachapi Mountains. Credit: Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times