A rare little toad delays $2.3 million road project Conservation law snags St. Mary's job

September 15, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

The Eastern narrow-mouthed toad has not been spotted officially in St. Mary's County for years, which doesn't necessarily mean it's not there. That's how it is with this toad, a critter about the size of a half-dollar that makes a career out of being unseen.

Shy as it is, the amphibian lately is casting a long shadow over California, Md., where the county Public Works Department plans to rebuild a two-lane road next to St. Mary's State Park.

But the widening of Indian Bridge Road poses a threat to the toad, protected by the state since 1972 as an endangered

species in Maryland.

"We don't have these situations very often," says Janet S. McKegg, director of the Maryland Natural Heritage Program, which enforces the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act.

"They're messy. We want to get it resolved."

As does the county, says road project manager Anne Germain of the Public Works Department. She says the toad is holding up the job, estimated at $2.3 million.

By now, Ms. Germain says, the county would have started clearing and grading land and mustering utility crews to move poles and cable boxes.

But the toad appeared. In a bureaucratic sense, anyway.

The county's request to the Department of Natural Resources for permission to disturb a small wetland prompted a check of the state agency's computer data base.

Information about a 1986 toad-sighting and other questions about the wetland surfaced, and the county request was denied.

The toad-sighting was made at the southwest fringe of St. Mary's State Park by Arnold Norden, who works for the Department of Natural Resources public lands and forestry division in Annapolis.

Mr. Norden, who has fancied reptiles and amphibians since he was a boy in South Baltimore, describes himself as a "compulsive log-turner." In August 1986, he says, he was inspecting state-owned property along the wooded flood plain by St. Mary's River, a stone's throw from Indian Bridge Road. He happened to flip over a log.

"Bark flew and, lo and behold, there was a narrow-mouthed toad," says Mr. Norden.

"It's a very distinctive frog, very easy to identify."

Only an inch long

When you can find one, that is. These toads measure about an inch long and vary in color from tan to reddish brown to gray,

and they can change color to suit their surroundings.

They live under cover of leaves or logs and are generally not seen until mating season in summer.

"The toads are extremely secretive," says Ms. McKegg. "They spend most of their life buried under leaf litter. In Maryland they're extremely hard to find."

L "We don't know whether it's there or not," says Ms. Germain.

Ms. McKegg can't say for certain if the toads are still living along Indian Bridge Road, but says "we have no reason to believe the things are gone."

How does the state know that the toad -- one of 497 plants and 121 animals protected by Maryland law -- is endangered?

"One of the comparisons we can use is how easy it is to find in places where it is more common," says Ms. McKegg.

For all their reclusive ways, she says, the toads are easier to spot in the South.

The toad as a species is doing well in the southern United States and as far west as east Texas, but it is considered in jeopardy in Maryland, the northern edge of its range.

Along the borders of its range, an animal may "provide a lot of evolutionary benefit to its species" by adapting to a previously hostile climate, Ms. McKegg says.

The endangered status imposes the most strict conditions for the toad's protection.

Under state law, one may not "harm, harass or kill" the narrow-mouthed toad, says Ms. McKegg, whose agency has decided that the county plans as they are now drawn would do one or all of those.

The Department of Natural Resources has special clout in this case, as it owns state parkland that the county needs for the project on the east side of Indian Bridge Road.

The county plans to widen 3.67 miles of the road by adding a foot to each of its 10-foot lanes and 8-foot shoulders on either side.

The project also includes resurfacing and new drainage ditches, leveling a precarious slope and straightening a dangerous curve.

The road is already busy, and is expected to become more heavily traveled as the nearby Patuxent Naval Air Station expands.

They'll talk about it

In the interest of traffic safety, the county says, the job must proceed. In the interest of protecting the toad -- which may or may not be there -- the work is on hold.

The state and the county expect to conduct negotiations soon.

Ms. Germain says her agency is willing to compromise and has written to the Department of Natural Resources offering ways to change the reconstruction plan to minimize the effect on the toads.

It may be a question of giving up land for peace, but, Ms. Germain says "we just want to be able to build an adequate road."

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