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Hundreds of northern leopard frogs released in Eastern Washington

Aug. 17, 2022 Updated Wed., Aug. 17, 2022 at 4:51 p.m.

Washington wildlife managers released hundreds of endangered northern leopard frogs into Washington’s channeled scablands Tuesday evening.

About a dozen of those frogs were outfitted with small radio transmitters placed by Washington State University researchers. Those transmitters will monitor the frog’s survival and movements and will help the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s ongoing efforts to recover the once-common species. In addition to WSU and WDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Zoo and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park also participated in Tuesday’s release in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in Grant County.

“Northern leopard frogs are an important indicator of water quality due to their permeable skin,” said Emily Grabowsky, WDFW biologist in a news release. “If we improve and conserve wetland habitat that is good for frogs, other species will also benefit ranging from other amphibians to waterfowl and deer.”

The species has been listed as endangered in Washington since 1999 and there is only one known wild population remaining in the state, according to a WSU statement. Federally, it’s listed as a species of concern. Likely causes of the frogs’ decline in the Pacific Northwest include habitat loss and degradation, disease, non-native species, and climate change.

“The Washington state population of northern leopard frogs has a unique genetic variation relative to the rest of the species range, and they are part of the natural diversity of amphibians of the region,” said Erica Crespi, WSU associate professor of biology in a statement. “We are working to keep them here!”

Once the mainstays of high school dissections, the frogs could be found throughout North America, including Eastern Washington and North Idaho. But the species’ footprint has declined. The sole surviving Washington population is in the North Potholes Reservoir Unit of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, south of Moses Lake.

WDFW is developing a recovery plan and considering reintroducing the amphibians to other areas.

The arid climate of the Potholes area, combined with its seasonal ponds and wetlands, make good leopard frog habitat. Northern leopard frogs can range farther from water than many other amphibians, even venturing into grassland and meadow during the summer months, earning them the moniker “meadow frogs.”

This also protects them from the voracious bullfrog, an invasive species that has contributed to the decline of the leopard frog. Bullfrogs require year-round water sources to survive and die in vernal ponds and wetlands.

Dams along the Columbia River have destroyed potential leopard frog habitat by keeping the river from flooding. Those seasonal floods created small ponds and wetlands alongside the river. At the same time, the draining of wetlands destroyed leopard frog habitat, making them more vulnerable to bullfrogs.

In Idaho, the northern leopard frog has been extirpated, although the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative are building vernal wetlands and ponds geared toward the frogs and other amphibians in North Idaho near the Canadian border.

“We’re at a critical point for this species,” said Jennifer Osburn Eliot, who oversees the Oregon Zoo’s frog-rearing efforts. “We’re doing everything we can to help northern leopard frogs thrive again in the Pacific Northwest – and a big, healthy froglet has a much better chance of surviving in the wild than an egg or a tadpole.”

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