In the late 1990s, biologists and hydrologists set about restoring Utah's Provo River. The river had been dammed and forced into channels. Now, nine years later, the river's had a major turnaround, and so has a creature that had all but disappeared - the Columbia Spotted Frog. Beth Hoffman reports.
GELLERMAN: On a spring day nine years ago, then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood in Utah’s Provo River searching for a rare Columbia spotted frog.
BABBITT: (tape) We are still looking for our first frog and I intend to keep coming back to Utah until I find one.
GELLERMAN: Well, Babbitt didn’t find one that day, and we don’t know whether he ever actually made it back to the river, but the frog did, thanks in part to a deal Babbitt brokered with a bunch of federal and local agencies. It took nearly a decade to restore the spotted frog’s habitat along the Provo River. It’s one small success story at a time when other species of frogs around the world are disappearing.
Beth Hoffman has our report.
HOFFMAN: Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve been missing until an old-timer points it out to you.
HOMER: When we were kids, 10-12 years old, we’d walk through meadows and catch some of these larger frogs.
HOFFMAN: Edwin Homer is a stocky, yet fragile-looking man, with neatly combed gray hair. He is recounting stories of his days as a boy catching frogs in the “slues” outside of Coalville, Utah, his home for the last 78 years.
HOMER: We’d take them down by the river, build a fire, and skin the hind legs, and we’d have a frog fry. They was quite tasty. It had a taste of their own, and if you got a biggest one, it would kind of have a taste…
HOFFMAN: What do you think he is going to say?
HOMER: … it would resemble a little bit of a chicken.
HOFFMAN: Within Edwin Homer’s lifetime, the marshy areas he remembers playing in as a kid, changed. Rivers were dammed and channelized, and the wetlands the frogs once used for breeding became dry land for grazing cows. But now along this western river, that may be changing.
[SOUND OF THE RIVER]
HOFFMAN: The Provo runs about 20 miles outside of Park City, Utah, with a backdrop of towering snow capped mountains and busy highways, sage-covered hills and new housing developments. Wildlife biologist Paula Trater traverses the area, looking for frog egg masses – gelatinous globs about the size of a large mango holding about 400 eggs in each.
TRATER: You get attached to them. Having done it for so long, they get to be like your friends. I mean I’ve planned my two children to be born around the frog season. It is just part of your life.
HOFFMAN: Trainer considers herself lucky – a biologist documenting a successful comeback story. Every year since the Restoration Project began, Trater spots more and more of the translucent eggs floating in the shallow ponds near the river.
[SOUND OF WATER]
TRATER: You can see the older ones, those have turned orange-ish, they absorb that red algae in the water. And then the fresher ones right next to it are clear, with the little black embryos.
[SOUND OF WALKING THROUGH THE WATER]
HOFFMAN: This river’s turn around is dramatic. Tyler Allred is the hydrologist that helped design the Provo Restoration project. He and partner Chad Gourley began the reconstruction in 1999, with a river that was as straight and channelized as a water ride in an amusement park.
ALLRED: In the ’50s and ’60s, the Bureau of Reclamation, had straightened it, sort of taken out all the curves. They lined with large rock so that it couldn’t move around and they built the banks up high on both sides, they put dikes there, so that it would never flood, never move.
HOFFMAN: And that’s the way the river might have remained. Except that people began to notice that the Columbia Spotted Frog, once plentiful, had all but disappeared. And so the debate between those that wanted the frog listed on the endangered species list, and those that did not, began. But Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, came up with a compromise. The frog would remain off the endangered list and development would continue in Utah, if and only if federal, state, tribal and local agencies committed to restoring the Provo River.
BABBITT: Basically it’s an attempt to say that we can have it both ways: we can develop and we can protect God’s creation.
HOFFMAN: Babbitt and other leaders met on the Provo River in 1998 to sign the deal that became one of the Interior Secretary’s hallmark compromises. And today his plan seems to be working. Paula Trater is out again in her safari hat and old fleece sweatshirt checking for eggs with hydrologist Tyler Allred.
[SOUND OF WALKING THROUGH WATER]
ALLRED: Are the frogs over here?
TRATER: They are, have you seen that?
TRATER: Man oh man! You’ve got to see it, I can’t even describe it.
ALLRED: It’s getting that good back there?
TRATER: Those little ponds have merged into one big, happy frog heaven.
HOFFMAN: The section Trainer is so excited about is one Allred and his team leveled seven years ago so that the area could safely flood. Then it looked like a moonscape, but today the river can now do what it naturally does best - change.
ALLRED: River ecosystems rely on disturbance. Without that, the system sort of stagnates, the cottonwoods that have established grow and they get older and they die and there aren’t any new one. And that process was actually the primary goal we were looking for – we wanted the river to be active, we wanted it to move around and allow those natural processes to take over.
HOFFMAN: Now a huge beaver lodge towers over the cattails of the side channel, a mass of chewed off young cottonwoods only a half-mile from the highway. Beaver dams also plug up the side-channels, which in turn creates ideal habitat for the frogs - swampy and shallow, and protected from predator fish
TRATER: Sometimes I’ll hear a woodpecker in the distance and it’ll sound just like a frog, their mating call. Like a..
ALLRED: Amphibians as a whole are taking a beating around the country. State wide, the numbers have been tanking. They’re kind of like the canary in the coal mine; they are the species that seems to react early when there are problems. And you can also tell when they’re doing well, that probably a lot of things in the ecosystem are doing well.
TRATER: And they are so cute…(laughing)
HOFFMAN: Nine years of cooperation and $45 million dollars seem to have paid off. Not only are the frogs back, but the trout are doing well too. So are property values. But not listing the Columbia Spotted Frog has also had repercussions. Nearby frog habitat is now home to luxury condos and golf courses. But Trater is hopeful that simply living with frogs in our midst will help change the way we understand the world around us.
TRATER: I think if this project hadn’t come on line, if it would have been going the way it was going before, another generation they wouldn’t have known they existed. I mean a world without frogs it’s a sad world. And if you don’t know it then you don’t know what you are missing. You know?
HOFFMAN: For Living on Earth, I’m Beth Hoffman in Heber, Utah.
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