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It’s a tough summer for toads, but not at B.C.’s Summit Lake

Image of toadlets entering tunnel
Western toadlets use a new tunnel built under Highway 6 at Summit Lake Provincial Park near Nakusp to move from the lake to upland habitat. With a warm spring and hot summer, toadlet numbers are way up, and their migration is weeks ahead of schedule.

Toadfest goes, but most toadlets migrated early to other side of highway

Note: This story was revised on Aug. 21

This has been the cruelest of summers for some amphibians in the B.C. interior, but not so for the stars of the show, the Western toads of Summit Lake Provincial Park near Nakusp.

Each year, toadlets face the daunting task of moving from the lake, across Highway 6 to upland areas where they mature and develop. But in 2015, the unusual weather has combined with human intervention to see larger — and far earlier — numbers getting to the other side safely.

The best news is that many toadlets making the early migration have taken advantage of a new tunnel built in 2014 under the highway that has helped reduce the number being squashed by cars and trucks on the road. The only slightly disappointing news is that this year's Toadfest at Summit Lake where the public was invited to help the toadlets cross the highway on August 12th saw far fewer numbers of toadlets than usual.  

Most toadlets had already migrated.

"We anticipated that the migration would be earlier this year because early breeding was observed due to the mild winter and warm spring," says Crystal Klym, Columbia Region manager for the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP). "Then the very hot summer accelerated the growth of the tadpoles, and large numbers of toadlets were already moving by the third week of July."

That booming success is in stark contrast to what has happened to some of the toadlets' cousins elsewhere in the Kootenays this summer. Species including the long-toed salamander, Columbia spotted frog, Pacific tree frog and wood frogs have sometimes struggled as traditional wetlands dried up in the drought.

Amphibians specialist Jakob Dulisse, a Nelson-based wildlife biologist does a lot of work with the FWCP in the Kootenay region, says he has seen dead tadpoles at dried-up wetlands this summer. He stresses that while most of us think B.C. has plenty of water, a "crazy summer" like this one puts huge pressure on wetlands habitat in many parts of B.C.

"In range areas where there are cattle, these wetlands are being impacted particularly hard, because the cattle are obviously thirsty as well," says Dulisse.

But with the troubling news comes the good. Dulisse has also seen firsthand the success of the Summit Lake migration – easily the biggest and earliest migration he has seen in six years working at the site.

"The tunnel seems to be working very well, and the toadlet numbers are more than any of us have seen in six years," he says. "There's definitely still significant road mortality, and people drive by and get upset by that, but the fencing we're experimenting with, the new tunnel and even one of the tunnels installed in 2006 seem to be working quite well. That's really positive."

Toadfest, now in its sixth year, is coordinated by the FWCP, with support from B.C. Parks, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Columbia Basin Trust, and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Western toads are provincially Blue-listed (vulnerable) and, while numbers are still relatively strong at Summit Lake, their distribution is shrinking and the centre of the world’s distribution has shifted from the U.S. to B.C.  

"Toadfest is about more than collecting toadlets; it really is a great opportunity to learn about the local ecology and other wildlife and plants in the region," adds FWCP’s Klym. "There will be live aquatic insects, amphibians, and reptiles to see as well as a variety of fun kids' activities and interactive displays to participate in."

 For more information about Toadfest, visit www.fwcp.ca or call 250 352 1300.

The FWCP is a partnership between BC Hydro, the Province of B.C., Fisheries and Oceans Canada, First Nations and public stakeholders, to conserve and enhance fish and wildlife impacted by BC Hydro dams.

The public are reminded not to collect or transport any toadlets across the highway outside of this organized event.