Whidbey Camano Land TrustWestern Toads a Symbol of Restoration Success at Dugualla Preserve Whidbey Camano Land TrustWestern Toads a Symbol of Restoration Success at Dugualla Preserve

Western Toads a Symbol of Restoration Success at Dugualla Preserve

Watching thousands of tiny toads crawl across a landscape can be a moving experience.

It was for Ruth Milner when she started her career 30 years ago as a biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. She remembers standing at the edge of a pond on Fort Lewis in Pierce County when a colleague told her to look down. “The ground was moving,” Milner recalled. “I thought it was incredible.”

The memory still excites Milner and she was thrilled to learn such a phenomenon was taking place at one of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust’s protected properties on northeast Whidbey Island.

Biologist Tom Cyra confirmed what he and Milner had already suspected when he visited the Land Trust’s Dugualla Flats Preserve this summer and observed a pile of tiny Western Toads scrambling along the edge of Dugualla Lake. The biologists had received reports of toadlets migrating en masse in the vicinity but weren’t certain of their pond of origin until the July visit.

Milner said it was important to find a site on Whidbey where biologists can monitor a troubled species that in recent decades has experienced a widespread population decline in the Western Washington lowlands. The Western Toad is considered a state candidate species, meaning it’s under review for possible listing by the state as endangered, threatened, or sensitive.

The toad, like most amphibians, is sensitive to changes in the environment.

“I would say it (the Dugualla breeding site) is really significant for two reasons,” Milner said. “One is it certainly appears to be a large breeding area that can accommodate a lot of toads. In terms of habitat provided and breeding potential, it’s one of the best we know of so far on the island.”

The other reason is that the site is part of a wide swath of protected land, including a nearby 39-acre property with 45 acres of Dugualla Bay tidelands known as Dugualla Bay Preserve (protected in 2008). The Land Trust also acquired a 39-acre field east of the lake in 2009 to create the Dugualla Flats Preserve.

A nearby landowner, whose property is adjacent to Dugualla Lake and protected by a Land Trust conservation easement, is mindful of toad activity. He schedules cutting his fields around the toad migration.

Most of the tiny toads are bound for upland forests, where the adults spend much of their lives and return to their natal ponds only during the spring breeding season. “It’s kind of living proof of a place where the landowners have figured out how to participate in the conservation of this species,” Milner said.

Since acquiring the Dugualla properties nearly a decade ago, the Land Trust partnered with Island County and Ducks Unlimited to restore the land and shoreline to a more natural condition for the benefit of salmon and other wildlife.

Once used as a diked farm field, Dugualla Flats has returned to its wetland roots. Ditches were plugged to increase water on the site. Abundant planting of native shrubs and placement of woody debris and snags on the land have created more wildlife habitat.

The former estuary in the Dugualla Bay Preserve was restored last fall when the Washington Department of Transportation partnered with us and breached an old dike as mitigation for impacts related to replacement of the Davis Slough Bridge on State Highway 532 near Camano Island.

The toads’ presence is only part of a greater fish and wildlife success story happening on protected and restored lands near Dugualla Bay. Juvenile Chinook and chum salmon were discovered this year inside the newly restored Dugualla Bay Preserve estuary.

Fish samples taken by the Skagit River System Cooperative revealed 29 juvenile Chinook salmon and more than 2,000 chum inside the tidal lagoon during monitoring between April and July.

This summer revealed further evidence that more of nature’s creatures were adapting well to the changes. White pelicans made a rare appearance for a few days not far from the restored estuary. Great Blue Herons were seen roosting in large numbers in the forested area next to Dugualla Flats. Even adult Western Toads were still hanging around the protected wetlands near the restored wooded area months after the breeding season.

“It’s nice to know they’re there,” Cyra said. “And it’s a big enough protected area that they’ll probably be able to survive for a while.”

Toadlet mortality is high. Cyra estimated that less than one in 10 of the tiny toads makes it to adulthood. He called them “bite-sized little morsels” for birds and other predators. Roads, though, tend to be a toad’s worst enemy. During migration, toadlets tend to follow a direct path bound for upland forests. For many, the journey ends quickly on the pavement.

“I’ve only seen it one time probably three or four years ago,” said Chris Holt, a Land Trust member who lives near Dugualla Bay. “There was just a herd of them coming across the road. They were getting smashed flat left and right. It was sad to see.”

Holt even tried to help a few toads cross the road, but “there wasn’t much you could do,” he said.

The status of toads on Whidbey Island is largely unknown. Milner has received plenty of tips about sightings on the island. This prompted Cyra’s visit over the summer to follow up those reports and document breeding sites with his own eyes.

He confirmed two other active toad breeding sites near Greenbank and Coupeville.

Milner said she doesn’t believe toads are particularly rare on Whidbey, but a lack of cooperation by landowners makes it difficult to confirm. She said some landowners have told her they have toads breeding on their properties but won’t reveal where out of concern that Island County might place protections on or near their lands.

Breeding habitats already are protected by the county’s wetland and stream critical areas regulations. Any proposed development near these sites requires a biological site assessment.

“I think there are more breeding sites on Whidbey than we know about,” Milner said. “Unfortunately, I think there’s this paranoia that keeps people from reporting it. I’m really disappointed to know that people are so fearful about what could happen on their property that ultimately we’re losing out on information,” Milner said. “Our goal is to understand the species and determine their distribution so they don’t end up with their population spiraling to an endangered category when landowners and agencies have to take restrictive measures to keep them from going extinct.”

So much about Western Toads is a mystery. Young toads generally are seen only during a short period in the summer. Adult toads are generally active only at night. They spend most of their time in the uplands, but how far they stray from their natal ponds and how often they return isn’t fully known.

“They’re so rarely seen and heard,” said Dyanne Sheldon, a retired restoration ecologist who serves on the Land Trust board of directors. “People don’t think about them very much.”