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So far so good for amphibian study

No endangered species yet, but no invasive species either

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Bob Brett, protected from the cold water by his hipwaders, reaches into the pond and gently pulls out a wriggling net trap full of tadpoles and salamander larvae.

Volunteers then gently moved the contents of the trap into a bowl so the species could be counted and catalogued.

A water beetle, which feeds on the amphibians in their larval stages and followed its prey into the trap, is carefully set aside – they bite into fingers as well as young frogs.

The same exercise was repeated in over 30 water bodies around Whistler over four days last week as part of the Whistler Biodiversity Project.

Hatched by Brett, a local ecologist, the goal of the project is to eventually assemble a comprehensive biodiversity inventory for Whistler with all species of local plants, insects and animals identified, as well as the habitats where they were discovered.

The inventory will be used to mitigate human impacts on the ecology, as well as to identify potentially endangered species within municipal boundaries. In addition, the inventory will also locate any alien species of plants and animals before they can drive out native species and upset the natural balance.

One discovery from last week was that there are a lot more salamanders in Whistler’s wetlands than expected, including three different varieties. The tadpoles belonged mainly to tree frogs and Western Toads, the latter of which has some protected status at the federal level.

The toads make an annual appearance on the trails in Lost Lake Park, where for several weeks they are in danger of being crushed by hikers and bikers. The municipality is working with environmental groups to shut trails, put up signs, build bridges and generally protect as many of the toads as possible.

Brett was hoping to find red-legged frogs in his search, an endangered species in B.C., and will be looking even more closely when the third part of the amphibian inventory is conducted in August. Finding the rare frogs will make it easier to make the case for wetland conservation.

At the same time Brett was also looking for bullfrogs, a non-native species that is taking over ponds and wetlands on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland and driving out native species.

"We haven’t found any bullfrogs, which is good news, but no red-legged frogs either, which is I guess bad news," said Brett. "They’re something we would expect to find here, but we might be able to come up with something in August."

To help find and identify species for the biodiversity project Brett has been bringing in experts from around the province with the aid of funding from AWARE, the municipality and the Community Foundation of Whistler. For the amphibian study he brought in herpetologist Elke Wind from Nanaimo to work with local volunteers.

Other inventory projects for this summer include adding to the plant inventory, which already stands at over 400 species, while looking for invasive species like scotch broom, yellow flag and napweed.

"All are invasive weeds that displace native species and are very aggressive," explained Brett. "They have a small foothold in Whistler right now, and we’re worried they’re going to take off, especially the broom."

By cataloguing where these species are found Brett says it’s possible to uproot and kill the weeds before they have a chance to take over.

"They’re in few enough locations that if we go at the right time of year we can remove that broom, really knock it back. I get the feeling we’re going to be facing a tsunami of weed," he said.

The amount of development and clearing in town makes it easier for the weeds to take hold, as natural vegetation can keep the weeds down. In addition, studies on Vancouver Island have shown that the weed seeds travel with gravel and dirt that is imported for construction and landscaping.

Another project planned for this summer is a bat study, which is difficult given the fact that they’re nocturnal and are well hidden during the day. Making things more difficult, Brett says the biodiversity project is committed to studying the animals without harming them, and cataloguing them with minimal disturbance. In other studies sometimes animals like bats are killed in order to make them easier to identify.

The bat study and second amphibian study will have a public component to them, and people will be invited to meet the experts. Details will be announced in upcoming Naturespeak columns submitted by the Whistler Naturalists.

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