Up to one million toads can cross the road safely in southeast British Columbia thanks largely to a provincial government program, but what they face on the other side – when they hop into a forest now slated for logging – is raising public fears.
Protesters have blocked an access road near Summit Lake, just outside the village of Nakusp in the Kootenay region, to stop logging crews from going into an area used by masses of western toads.
A petition opposing logging is in circulation, and on Tuesday, the issue got a higher profile when a leading environmental group issued a statement saying "one of the great wildlife migrations in the world" is at risk.
Gwen Barlee, policy director for the Wilderness Committee, said the Ministry of Forests' recent decision to approve logging doesn't make any sense, because the Ministry of Highways has been working to save the toads.
A "toad tunnel" costing nearly $200,000 was recently built under Highway 6, which the toads have to cross to get from the lake to the forest where they feed and hibernate.
But Ms. Barlee said a logging company called NACFOR (for Nakusp and Area Community Forest) plans to clear-cut 30 hectares where the toads hibernate underground in squirrel middens and burrows.
"It is crazy that you have the B.C. government investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the toads, and then you have the B.C. Ministry of Forests allowing the destruction of core habitat of the same toads," Ms. Barlee said.
Wayne McCrory, a wildlife biologist and member of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, said he doubts NACFOR can log without causing serious damage to the toads, which are listed as a species of concern in B.C.
"Saving them as they cross the highway and then killing them from logging is not very ethical and not very scientific," Mr. McCrory said.
He said research shows toads can live in open areas that have been logged, but it is not known what impact heavy logging and road-building equipment will have on hibernating toads.
Mr. McCrory said all of the forest within two kilometres of the lake should be set aside for the toads, and he suggested expanding Summit Lake Provincial Park, which now protects only a small point in the lake.
Debbie Pitaoulis, who lives on Summit Lake, said the annual migration is an amazing event that draws tourists from around the world, many of whom use buckets to rescue toads that miss the tunnel and hop onto the pavement.
"People have attended Toadfest from France, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and as far away in Canada as Ontario," she said. "They came because they heard you could actually pick up this endangered species and carry it [to safety]. So it's a profound experience."
Ms. Pitaoulis said many local residents are horrified by logging plans. "What I hear from residents is it's horrible. They can't believe it's being allowed," she said.
But Hugh Watt, a professional forester and general manager of NACFOR, said he believes logging can take place without causing significant damage to the toad population.
"We are quite confident and we are designing our logging so there is retention of trees in the lower elevations. … We got some toad experts to go in there and mark smaller habitat features that we'll go around," he said.
Mr. Watt said NACFOR, which is owned by the village of Nakusp, is probably the first logging company in B.C. ever to draft a logging plan specifically with toads in mind.
"I think we are breaking ground, and that's sort of where we are getting some opposition and flak," he said. "Our position is we feel we can take a careful footprint and go into this thing with our eyes open about toads."
Irene Manley, a wildlife biologist with the Ministry of Forests, agreed. She said radio tracking studies show the toads disperse all around the lake and are not concentrating just in the relatively small area to be logged. She said forest structures likely to be used by hibernating toads have been flagged and loggers will avoid those sites.
"If you have a good snow pack and you log in the winter, there can be minimum ground disturbance," she added.