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Guidelines hope to jumpstart rescue of frogs, other amphibians from prairie developments

A Calgary Zoo ecologist has helped develop new guidelines to protect frogs, salamanders and other amphibians impacted by human development on the prairies.

Some amphibian species in Alberta are at risk of extinction

Lea Randall's guidelines on amphibian translocation are already being implemented in Saskatchewan. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

A Calgary Zoo ecologist has helped develop new guidelines to protect frogs, salamanders and other amphibians impacted by human development on the prairies.

"Amphibians are really sensitive because their skin will absorb all kinds of environmental contaminants or toxins," said Leah Randall, a population ecologist with the centre for conservation research at the Calgary Zoo.

A Calgary Zoo ecologist has helped develop new guidelines to protect frogs, salamanders and other amphibians impacted by human development on the prairies. 0:28

When the government and private sectors are undertaking projects with a footprint that impacts the wetlands, like infrastructure construction, agriculture or oil and gas, they have to mitigate the impact to amphibians and other critters that live in those habitats. 

Sometimes, that means putting up barriers to keep amphibians from entering the construction site, or changing the season that the construction work takes place so it's completed when fewer animals will be affected.

A leopard frog blends in with his habitat at the Calgary Zoo. (Calgary Zoo)

Other times, it can mean transporting them to a new habitat, a move that until now, there weren't any concrete guidelines for.

"Most of our guidelines are how to avoid translocations, and if translocation is deemed to be the only option, this is how they can be done safely," Randall said. 

The study, which involved input from conservation agencies and provincial government's — including Alberta's, is already being implemented to protect Saskatchewan's wetlands.

Corie White, a senior ecologist with the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency, says the guidelines are a "foundational tool."

The agency is responsible for everything to do with water in the province — from drinking water, to waste water, to monitoring dams and reservoirs. 

Lea Randall is a conservation research population ecologist with the Calgary Zoo. (Audrey Gagne-Delorme)

In one case, White said, before the guidelines were implemented, the agency was working on an improvement project on the Upper Qu'Appelle River. 

"It's a major source of water for a large part of the province," White said. 

They did biological assessments, and found that 20,000 frogs were living in the ecosystem. So, they ended up having to move 5,000 frogs over the course of each year — a project that would have been much easier with the aid of the new guidelines. 

"This is a really important piece of work because it provides some clear guidance to help people recognize species at-risk populations and habitat in their project planning and implementation to ensure they're being environmentally responsible and to ensure they're in compliance with the legislation out there," White said.

"It synthesizes all of the information that used to be out there into a single document."

Leopard frogs are a threatened species, that are especially vulnerable to environmental disruptions. (Calgary Zoo)

Randall said there are significant risks to translocating at-risk species, like northern leopard frogs, boreal toads and long-toed salamanders.

"You might be introducing them into populations where they're not genetically compatible. There can be risk of moving disease," she said. 

"You don't want to be sticking 30 frogs in a bucket and carrying them 10 kilometres away."

The guidelines include:

  • information on timing and selection of release sites
  • how to safely capture, hold and transport amphibians
  • hygiene and disease management 
  • and how to handle different amphibians during different life stages, from larvae to adults. 

Alberta has lost 60% of wetlands

A 2017 report from the World Wildlife Fund found that many of Canada's at-risk species are continuing to decline, and on average, amphibians in Canada lost 34 per cent of their population between 1970 and 2014. 

"We know that we've lost about 60 per cent of our wetlands in southern Alberta," said Randall. "We're definitely concerned."

Rod Podbielski with the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency said the province started working with the zoo on the project in 2013. Podbielski said the guidelines will be informing what his agency does on an ongoing basis. 

A spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Parks said the province has received the guidelines, and is looking at how they can implement best practices. 

With files from Dave Gilson