DEM partners with URI, conservation groups to create habitat for the endangered Eastern Spadefoot Toad

The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is partnering with the University of Rhode Island (URI) and a contingent of conservation organizations this week to create breeding wetlands for the state-endangered eastern spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii). The wetlands are being created on land protected jointly by the Richmond Rural Preservation Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy.  

Eastern spadefoot toads have stout bodies that reach about 2.5 inches in length. The hind feet are large and contain hard tissue that allows them to function as “spades” for digging in loose soils. They are “explosive” breeders that reproduce only on extremely rainy nights in May or June. They breed in very short-lived wetlands with their tadpoles turning into tiny toadlets in a matter of a few weeks. 

Populations of the eastern spadefoot toad have declined drastically in the state in recent decades, with exceedingly few breeding sites known to remain. Spadefoot toads require specialized, short-lived wetlands for breeding that are highly vulnerable to disturbance. Much of this habitat has been lost or degraded as a result of human development. 

“The possibility of losing spadefoot toads from Rhode Island in the near future is a very real one,” said Scott Buchanan, a biologist with DEM’s Division of Fish and Wildlife in a prepared statement. “Because they require such a narrow range of conditions to survive and reproduce, they are extremely vulnerable.” The creation of wetlands is an effort to make new breeding habitat available in areas where the toads are known to occur. The project, which has been dubbed “Operation Spadefoot RI,” involves a number of conservation agencies and organizations.  

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“The Rhode Island conservation community has rallied around this project and we’re very excited to finally be putting shovels in the ground and giving this species a chance for a future in the state,” said Nancy Karraker, Associate Professor at URI who has spearheaded the project in the announcement. In addition to DEM and URI, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, The Nature Conservancy, and Roger Williams Park Zoo have each played a role in moving the project forward. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has provided critical funding, and the Richmond Rural Preservation Land Trust has been instrumental in providing the land upon which the wetlands will be created. 

“When we heard that one of our properties could provide critical habitat for this rare toad, our board voted unanimously in support,” said Suzanne Paton, Land Trust Chair in the statement. “We are happy to provide what resources we have and are grateful for the support of so many partners.” A local contractor and dozens of citizen volunteers will be providing equipment and labor during construction, as well.  

Creation of two spadefoot toad breeding wetlands begins today in Richmond and is expected to be completed on Wednesday, May 15. This work is the first step in a larger plan, with additional wetland creation being coordinated with the South Kingstown Land Trust and Barrington Land Conservation Trust.  

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