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Saved from destruction, threatened frogs find home at Valley community college

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GLENDALE – A few months ago, the frog fidgeting in Philip Fernandez’s hands lived in a pond far from this artificial habitat at Glendale Community College.

Flooding that followed the Monument Fire outside Sierra Vista wiped out its home in June, leaving two ponds in the Huachuca Mountains filled with gravel.

But thanks to a call from a landowner and a quick response by the Arizona Fish and Game Department, 50 Chiricahua leopard frogs and 62 tadpoles are now thriving in the school’s Life Sciences Building.

“Here we can completely protect them and control them and control the environment and keep them safe,” said Fernandez, a professor of biology.

The federal government designated the Chiricahua leopard frog a threatened species in 2002 after a combination of drought, disease, habitat destruction and invasive species reduced the population to a vulnerable size. Because the frogs live in small, isolated pools, any disruption to their habitat can destroy entire populations.

Since the mid-1990s, Game and Fish has worked to restore the frog’s population across state. Last year, it celebrated the reintroduction of the 10,000th frog to the wild.

Valerie Boyarski, amphibians and reptiles conservation planner for Game and Fish, said this summer’s wildfires in southeastern Arizona the White Mountains took a yet-to-be-determined toll on the species.

And hundreds of frogs couldn’t be saved from the two small pools at Beatty’s Guest Ranch, where these frogs were rescued, she said.

Game and Fish hoped to release them in the White Mountains, but this summer’s massive Wallow Fire canceled those plans, Boyarski said.

“We decided to go ahead and pull frogs into this facility, where we knew they would be in a good situation,” she said.

While the Phoenix Zoo typically serves as the primary breeding site for Chiricahua leopard frogs, the population near Sierra Vista had never been exposed to Chytrid fungus, a disease that spreads through water and destroys frog populations, Fernandez said.

Instead, the frogs were moved to a lush, indoor riparian habitat the community college built in 2003 in anticipation of taking in frogs from the wild. Before the rescue at Beatty’s Guest Ranch the space, complete with waterfall and pool, was home to only a few small native fish, algae and a host of bugs, Fernandez said.

Now, with 25 adult females living in the habitat, each with the ability to lay 600 to 800 eggs a month, Game and Fish hopes to release a new generation of young frogs and tadpoles once suitable habitats are identified.

“Ideally, we would like to get the frogs back out in their natural environment,” Boyarski said.

Tom Beatty Sr., 73, owner of Beatty’s Guest Ranch, said he called Game and Fish to rescue the frogs because he’d seen devastating floods after a fire in the 1970s. He said he already has cleared debris from one one pond and is in the process of clearing out the other one.

“We have good air, water and food for them,” he said. “They probably won’t get back to their glory days, but the frogs will be fine.”

The mature frogs, now comfortable with human contact and away from predators, will likely never return to the apple orchards and ponds of Beatty’s ranch.

But that isn’t necessarily bad news. The riparian habitat has all the creature comforts of home, with live crickets to eat and no predators.

“I don’t know if frogs feel happiness,” Fernandez said, “But I think these guys are pretty happy here.”