Bastrop State Park Volunteer Work Parties to Save the Houston Toad, By Dale Martin

As most people in Texas know, early September 2011 brought a devastating wildfire to the Bastrop state Park.  A few park structures built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930’s were damaged, thousands of trees burned along with acres and acres of underbrush. An endangered species resident of the Park became even more endangered: The Houston Toad. 

From December 2011 thru February 2012, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department led six volunteer work parties to restore the banks around the known Houston toad ponds in Bastrop State Park.  Though people were hoping the toads made it okay, surveys of the area have resulted in no Houston Toad calls being heard at some of the ponds. 

Friday, January 27, I drove up to Bastrop State Park from Houston and set up camp in the Deer Run campground for a two-night stay.  A few weeks prior, I had signed up for the January 28 volunteer work party.

Saturday morning, at 8:30am, I and 62 other volunteers gathered at The Refectory, checked in, received our hard hats and instructions from TPWD Park Interpreter/Volunteer Coordinator Katie Raney.  She, her team of TPWD staffers, and the 63 volunteers were going to caravan out to pond #2 to put down mulch along the pond and drainage banks. 

The ground cover had been burned off leaving nothing in the way of cover for any Houston Toads who may emerge from their underground burrows to call to females or hear and respond to male calls.  Providing 50% coverage of mulch provides some camouflage for the toads while they are on the surface and provides something they can hide under to avoid predators. The mulch is also important for promoting plant growth and helping to attract insects…just what the toads need.  

We arrived at and parked on the shoulder of the roadway near some big piles of mulch–about 10 or 20 cubic yards or more.  Katie walked us out to the pond about 200-300 yards from the road and showed us what she wanted in the way of mulch coverage.  Six of us stayed at the pond as the rest of the group strung themselves along the route back to the road

Volunteers began shoveling mulch into the tall, orange,  Home Depot buckets.  The buckets were passed from person to person down to the pond area where six of us took the incoming buckets as they arrived and shook out mulch between the high-water mark and the tree line. 

As we worked our way towards the road, the line got more compressed and became more like an actual bucket brigade where a bucket (or buckets) was passed hand-to-hand without any steps being taken by the passers. 

Once the mulch distributors reached the road, Katie declared it was time for a lunch break.  We had mulched the north side of the pond and the north bank of the pond drainage to the roadway. 

After lunch, as we again formed a bucket brigade line to feed the mulch distributors, I opted to be part of the line. 

Apparently, we were either so fired up from lunch or we had all gotten much better at passing buckets because we finished mulching the south side of the pond and its drainage banks in half the time it took us to do the north bank in the morning.  Once we put our equipment away–shovels, rakes, buckets, hard hats, etc–Katie thanked us and everyone left for home. 

Early Saturday morning, February 11, I drove up to Bastrop State Park to again participate in the last volunteer work party of the season–it is close to toad breeding season and Park staff don’t want to disrupt the toads’ activities.

This time, we went to toad pond #8, a pond which toad specialists had heard Houston toads calling earlier in the week.  Just like the work party a couple of weeks ago, we set up a bucket-brigade line between the mulch pile and the pond, and a mulch distribution team at the pond.  The first buckets started down the line about 10:00am.

Unknown to us down at the pond or along much of the bucket-brigade line, there was some unexpected excitement at the mulch pile: Someone uncovered a coral snake that had been hunkered down in the pile, likely staying warm during the 30-degree temperatures that night and morning. A TPWD staffer was posted to guard the snake from curious volunteers who wanted to look at it. 

By about noon, we finished putting down a 50%-coverage of mulch on the banks of the pond. Katie declared our work complete and led us through the Park back to our cars.

Dale Martin is a wonderful long time devoted volunteer at the Houston Zoo.  He assists our staff photographer and the web team.  

If you want to hear more about how the Houston Toads are doing after the Bastrop fires join us at the Zoo for our Wildlife Speaker Series  event on Friday, March 9 at 7:00 p.m.  Get up close and personal with a live Houston Toad and get an update on the wild Toads from our Amphibian Conservation Manager, Paul Crump.  Dr. Michael Lannoo of Indiana University School of Medicine will give a presentation titled: A Window into the Global Amphibian Crisis: Discovering the Biology of North America’s Most Secretive Frog, the Crawfish frog, as it Approaches Extinction.  Buy your tickets HERE.

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