A recent routine check of a fencing exclosure in the Buckskin Hills area near Camp Verde led to excitement and a flurry of activity within the wildlife biology community. The exclosures are designed to protect riparian or other sensitive areas from livestock damage and off-road vehicles. Friends of the Forest volunteers monitor the conditions and maintenance status of twenty Red Rock Ranger District exclosures with visits before and after the movement of cattle which graze under seasonal Forest Service permits.

During a July visit to a small spring in the greater Fossil Creek watershed, a Friends volunteer snapped a photo of a lone frog to include with his report. Red Rock District Wildlife Biologist Janie Agyagos immediately knew that this frog was significant and shared the photo with other biologists in the Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Biologists from these agencies comprise the Chiricahua leopard frog recovery implementation team.

Leopard frog is a generic name used to refer to various species in the true frog genus Lithobates. Although some species of leopard frog may be common in parts of North America, the rare Chiricahua leopard frog has been in decline and was listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002. This aquatic species is found only in eastern Arizona, western New Mexico, and northern Mexico. Their numbers have been significantly impacted by the loss of riparian habitat, disease, predation, and resource competition from non-native aquatic species such as crayfish, bullfrogs, and fish.

The greater Fossil Creek watershed is within one of eight areas designated for recovery efforts for the Chiricahua leopard frog. Over the past decade, hundreds of captive-raised frogs have been released into livestock tanks and other riparian areas to improve populations of the species. The Phoenix Zoo’s Arizona Center for Nature Conservation and to a lesser extent, the Bubbling Ponds Fish Hatchery in Page Springs have partnered in raising the frogs for release in the wild. Other elements of the recovery program include the reduction of threats to existing populations, maintenance or restoration of habitat that can be managed in the long-term, and monitoring of populations. Despite such efforts, this species was believed to be gone from the greater Fossil Creek area.

The volunteer’s photo led to discovery of at least 10 other Chiricahua leopard frogs living in an earthen livestock tank near the first siting. A later search of the adjacent, lower elevation area led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Shaula Hedwall revealed multiple populations in a stream, a second protected spring and a second tank, including one population of over one hundred Chiricahua leopard frogs. These findings indicate that the frog is successfully overwintering at these lower elevations versus the higher hills that were once inhabited.

With the documentation of multiple successful population sites in the Hackberry Basin area, the next step for the recovery implementation team will be to expand their distribution by moving some frogs from a livestock tank to a third spring. The spring has an exclosure fence which is monitored and maintained by a Friends of the Forest volunteer and has enough habitat to support a small frog population.
Agyagos said, “It’s really significant that we now have Chiricahua Leopard frogs in natural waters, as opposed to being only in man-made earthen stock tanks such as those up in their previously occupied area. We want to do whatever we can to encourage populations within natural habitat that are free from non-native predators.”

The recovery implementation team is considering volunteer recommendations for improving the exclosures. Wildlife friendly fencing, installation of gates, and expansion of space within the exclosures are likely enhancements. Riparian habitat and perennial water have expanded in some areas with these protection efforts. These riparian zones provide an environment for a variety of native aquatic species such as toads, other frog species and gartersnakes as well as a variety of mammals.

“Large-scale and varied recovery efforts, such as those carried out in the Fossil Creek watershed, are vitally important since biologists do not know exactly which efforts will be successful, or how species will adapt to changes in natural conditions, such as disease and long-term drought,” said Agyagos.

Hedwall added, “It’s exciting to see that all the work everyone on the team has done regarding habitat improvements, releasing frogs, range management, and spring exclosures has helped these frogs to persist.” Ongoing innovative protection efforts of multiple agencies and partners are necessary to ensure the existence of native aquatic species in circumstances of persisting climate change, proliferation of non-native predators and loss of habitat.