All hopped up: town unites for toad revival

NPR – Real | Windows | MP3

A small environmental miracle has occurred in Beatty, Nev., a former mining town that sits on the eastern edge of Death Valley between Jackass Flats and Sober Up Gulch. The people of Beatty have helped revive the Amargosa toad, a warty, speckled, palm-sized creature that's unique to the area and, just a few years ago, seemed headed for extinction.

But this is not your typical story of environmental action the toad owes its comeback to an unlikely coalition that includes ranchers, miners, off-road racers, opponents of big government and the local brothel.

The toads come out at night, and twice a year around June, so does a team of volunteers assembled by the Nevada Department of Wildlife to count them. Shuffling through a cattle pasture armed with buckets and flashlights, Brian Hobbs, an amphibian biologist with the state, leads a group in gathering the toads. They live anywhere there is water.

Even though the area around Beatty is desert, there's quite a bit of water, thanks to natural hot springs and a fitful creek known as the Amargosa River.

The volunteers place an electronic tag under the skin of any toad that doesn't already have one. It's quiet work female toads are silent and so are the males, unless they're being mounted by another male or squeezed by a scientist.

One toad receiving a tag gives his "release call," then urinates copiously on the tagger. That gets a big laugh from the other volunteers.

After more than an hour in the pasture, though, the team has found only nine toads. So they head down to the house where David Spicer, a rancher, lives with his family. Spicer comes out to greet them and announces that his yard is packed with toads.

"When we go over by this light, we're going to really all need every one of us," Spicer says as he takes the group toward one of his outbuildings. "There's like 50 to 60 that'll be over there. An enormous amount of them. We're like toad farmers around here."

Spicer's right. The volunteers have hit the toad mother lode. Pretty soon their buckets are full and release calls fill the air.

Protecting Toads To Keep Private Land Private

"What you're seeing tonight are the results of active land management, active habitat management," Spicer says

He has run miles of underground pipe around his property to create breeding pools and wet habitat for the toads. Spicer grew up with the toads and wants to preserve them, he says.

But here's the surprising thing: Another reason, and perhaps the major reason Spicer has gone to such lengths is because he really, really does not like the Endangered Species Act.

"Nobody trusts the government anymore," Spicer says. "Nobody wants to work with the government. The government always wants to take something from you."

So Spicer got worried more than a decade ago when some scientists declared that there were only a few dozen Amargosa toads left. Soon after that, when a group petitioned the federal government to add the toad to the endangered species list, Spicer came up with a plan.

"You need to defend yourself against such actions like that because that's not a good thing to have happen," he says.

Spicer feared the government would try to protect the toads by telling him he couldn't raise cattle or ride off-road vehicles on his own property. So he helped start a group called STORM-OV, which stands for Saving Toads thru Off-Road Racing, Mining and Ranching in Oasis Valley.

STORM-OV has worked with the government, groups like the Nature Conservancy and with locals who just want to save the toad.

"We want to keep it in our hands, where it's at a local level, where we can do things and be nimble," Spicer says. "You get restricted by bureaucracy, the monstrous, litigious things that go on in the Endangered Species Act, and we're definitely not going to have any fun on our own ranches anymore."

The group has persuaded land owners to make their properties toad-friendly. They've also worked to get rid of non-native animals like bullfrogs and crawdads, which eat toad eggs and tadpoles, and invasive plants like tamarisk and cattail that clog the springs where toads live.

Toad Tourism?

Other people in Beatty see toad preservation as a way to revive their town.

Kay Tarr is a retired schoolteacher who sits on the Beatty Habitat Committee. To the flock of kids who always seem to be scampering through her doublewide, she's known as Grandma Kay. Tarr likes to give tours of Beatty in her golf cart a spinal tumor left her unable to work the brake and accelerator pedals with her feet, so she uses the tip of a cane.

"That used to be the casino over there, and oh it was a fun place, before our town died," she says, driving down the main street toward Beatty's only stoplight.

"We used to have street dances out here in the parking lot," she says. "Bands up on the trucks. Everybody dancing in the street. They even made me get out there and dance in my wheelchair."

Beatty was home to more than 2,000 people when the Bullfrog gold mine was still operating a few miles away. Now there might be half that many.

But Tarr and other members of the Habitat Committee think the Amargosa toad could revive Beatty. Their plan is to create a nature trail along the stretch of Amargosa River that runs through town.

"See those benches and the trash cans," she says bumping along a dirt path next to the river. "We'd like to put those all along the riverbed. And this right here is where we'd like to start our trail."

The idea is that an attraction featuring the Amargosa toad would encourage visitors to stay just a little longer. And that idea has gained some traction among residents.

"It's been slow and it's been tedious and it's been frustrating," says Shirley Harlan, who lives outside Beatty and is president of Friends of the Amargosa Toad. "But within the past, I'd say, three years, have we gotten the public educated sufficiently to realize that [the toad] is an asset?"

A Toad-Friendly Brothel

That message has clearly reached Angel's Ladies, a licensed brothel just up the road. The brothel is run by a couple who used to be in the funeral home business. It even has its own airstrip, complete with the carcass of a twin-engine plane that crashed while landing there more than 30 years ago.

"Here, I'll show you one of the bungalows," says Tom Arillaga, who helps maintain the collection of small buildings that comprise Angel's Ladies.

"We have two of these bungalows, plus every girl has their own room decorated, you know, for customers," he says.

The brothel is toad-friendly, right down to the clothing-optional swimming pool out back, Arillaga says.

"We don't bother them or anything like that," he says "The pool is not chemically treated, so they go in the pool and their eggs wash down the creek here, and then they hatch along the creek.

Arillaga adds that most swimmers seem to like the toads.

"There's are a few of them up there I've named," he says. "Big fat ones that come out when I come up here at nighttime and swim, and they'll just come right up to me, and I sit there and I talk to them, and they look at me like I'm their friend, you know. They're kinda cute."

It's a quirky kind of environmentalism. But it seems to be working. This year's toad counts show that their numbers remain in the thousands. And earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the latest petition to place the Amargosa toad on the endangered species list.