PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEPHANIE FODEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Climate Innovators and Adaptors
This is one in a series of stories on climate change related to topics of biodiversity, urban adaptation, the green economy and exploration, with the support of Rolex. Read more about the Climate Innovators and Adaptors program.
On an April afternoon near a pond behind a suburban playground in Longueuil, 20 minutes southeast of Montreal, the air was full of the sound of catcalls – not rude shouting, but rather a multitude of clicking, bell-like croaks from dozens of male frogs trying to attract mates.
“Now that’s a chorus of chorus frogs,” said Lynn Bouthillier, a biologist with Quebec’s Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks.
Dressed in a waterproof fishing wader, Ms. Bouthillier sploshed through the pond and picked up a minnow trap half-submerged beneath the shallow brown water. She carefully opened the cage, shook it around a bit, then pinched out a toonie-sized chorus frog with its ballooning throat deflated and its suction cup fingers reaching into the air. She was holding a surviving member of a species that has lost more than 90 per cent of its essential habitat in Quebec since 1960 and has been classified federally as threatened for more than a decade, though populations of the frog exist elsewhere in Canada and in the United States.
Ms. Bouthillier dropped the frog into a plastic container, which she took to her car and placed in a cooler bound for the basement of Montreal’s Biodome, a natural science museum with habitats for wildlife. There, an emergency conservation effort is working to replenish local populations of the tiny chorus frogs, but it might be too little too late.
Ms. Bouthillier’s work with the Ministry and the Biodome is just one tine of a multi-pronged effort to save Quebec’s native chorus frogs, as Montreal’s expanding suburbs continue to consume the wetlands where they thrive. The frogs are bellwethers for biodiversity, because they are eaten by other rare species, making them vital to the local food chain.
Tommy Montpetit, 51, grew up near the Longueuil playground and Boisé du Tremblay, a wooded area that contains 25 per cent of the chorus frog population in Quebec’s Montérégie region, making it one of the most important habitats for the species in the province.
He remembers being six or seven years old and hearing a municipal councilman tell his parents that he wouldn’t let developers take the woods and wetlands away. “He said, ‘No, no, no, nothing’s going to be built in front of you,’” Mr. Montpetit recalled. “And at about eight or nine, I saw the housing projects beginning in front of my house. That’s when I learned that you can’t trust anybody that says it’s going to end.”
As conservation director at the environmental advocacy organization Ciel et Terre, Mr. Montpetit has spent the past 18 years pleading with government officials to protect the chorus frog. Aside from the species’ benefits for biodiversity, he said, the frog’s wetlands are key for humans, because ponds can act like natural sponges during floods.
But Mr. Montpetit said his calls to protect the chorus frog from its greatest existential threat beyond climate change – land development – largely go unheard. He has fought to preserve habitats in the Montreal suburbs of La Prairie, Île Perrot and his hometown of Longueuil, sometimes successfully but other times not.
“I’m receiving calls every day: ‘Oh, there’s a bulldozer here. Oh, there’s a bulldozer there,” he said. “I don’t even have time to scientifically help the frog.”
Last year, Mr. Montpetit’s demands for Longueuil’s city government to add several frog-friendly underpasses beneath a road project that cut through Boisé du Tremblay went ignored. So he joined another environmental organization, SNAP Québec, in threatening to sue the federal government if they didn’t overrule Quebec’s approval of the project and stop construction.
In November, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced an emergency order to halt construction, but the road extension was already almost finished. Road signs, fire hydrants, ditches and a small underpass, which Mr. Montpetit says is insufficient for the frogs, had already been installed. “It’s drying up the wetlands on both sides, so we’re just waiting for somebody to do something, and nobody’s doing anything,” he said.
If the wetlands where chorus frogs breed continue to be lost, Mr. Montpetit estimates they could go extinct in the province in little more than a decade.
That is, if the project to replenish them doesn’t succeed.
Beneath the alligators, parrots and starfish of the Biodome’s five ecosystems, chorus frogs Ms. Bouthillier has taken from ponds in Longueuil perch on logs in glass terrariums. Since 2008, the Biodome has sought to breed the tiny frogs and return them to the wild, but the process hasn’t been easy.
One complication has been confusion over precisely which species of chorus frog needs saving. Initially, biologists thought the Montreal area had Western chorus frogs, which are found primarily in Southwestern Ontario. But recent genetic tests have suggested the local amphibians might be Boreal chorus frogs, which are found across Canada and the United States. Either way, researchers are confident the frogs’ numbers are dwindling in Quebec.
Biologists tried to shower the chorus frogs with rain and put them in a refrigerator to simulate winter, but they still wouldn’t breed come springtime. “We know a lot more about breeding amphibian species when it comes to a tropical species that people have at home than about the species we have here,” said Gheylen Daghfous, the live collection curator at Space for Life, a museum district that includes the Biodome and a few other institutions.
Then, in 2014, the Biodome tried an experimental hormone treatment developed by University of Ottawa professor Vance Trudeau. It worked: the chorus frogs started breeding.
In 2016, hundreds of Biodome-raised chorus frog juveniles were released into ponds in St-Constant, south of Montreal, and then in Mont-Saint-Bruno National Park near Longueuil in 2021. Chorus frogs hadn’t been heard in Mont-Saint-Bruno in recent memory. The location was chosen because it was near other habitats and was already protected from development.
Sophie Tessier, Mont-Saint-Bruno’s conservation coordinator, said she spent the spring worrying that the tiny frogs wouldn’t survive the winter. But then she got a text message from a colleague saying they had heard the frogs’ enchanting breeding song. “I got like a mother that just learned my own babies are safe,” she said.
But the chorus frog reintroduction project isn’t a silver bullet. Conservationists will need to wait at least five years to determine if the frogs will survive in Mont-Saint-Bruno after being bred in captivity. Even then, populations could die from natural causes like microscopic fungus and warm spring temperatures that dry up ponds before tadpoles can grow.
“Do you know how many years I’ve been – and many people have been – working on this and we’re not even sure it’s going to work?” Ms. Tessier said. “I mean, do they really like that place? I don’t know. I’d have to speak chorus frog language to ask them like if they feel safe here.”
Mr. Montpetit compares the Biodome’s effort on behalf of the chorus frog to attempts to breed pandas at zoos – it’s a last resort. Protecting natural habitats is essential, but conservation continues to be an uphill battle, despite the recent federal order. In April, Mr. Montpetit went to visit the Darveau marsh in Longueuil, where he’d heard frogs sing before, only to see it had been covered in gravel.
Still, the activist remains hopeful. Longueuil’s 30-year-old mayor, Catherine Fournier, recently met with environmental groups and agreed to protect 1,500 hectares, which include the chorus frog’s habitats as well corridors between them. “Youngsters really want to save the frog,” Mr. Montpetit said. “But it’s a learning process for them because it’s hard when you go against developers, which are worth millions and sometimes billions of dollars.”
He admits that Quebec’s chorus frogs might be too far gone at this point, but he says he won’t give up.
“This is the fight of my life. I’m just gonna go and continue till I can’t.”