To volunteers' dismay, Michigan's frog and toad survey is put on hold
Every spring since 1996, volunteers from around the state have participated in a frog and toad survey.
Their data goes to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and it helps paint a picture of how amphibians are doing, and how the environment is changing.
But this spring, after 27 years of citizen science, Michigan’s frog and toad survey has been canceled indefinitely.
'IT WAS MAGICAL'
On the Old Mission Peninsula, Kathy Gray, a 10-year volunteer, visits a favorite spot on her survey route — a vernal pond on Brinkman Road.
She takes out a thick binder covered in amphibian stickers and a picture of a road sign reading: “Frog parking only. All others will be toad.”
“That was from a friend,” Gray said. "People would send me stuff, because they knew I was into it.”
Inside the binder are stacks of paper, including data sheets, used for the same purpose since the mid-1990s. Volunteers would write down their location, the date and time, the temperature and the level of frog call intensity.
“We were estimating their numbers with this rank,” said Gray. “There were four different choices. You could be a zero, meaning, like now. We don’t hear any frogs. Or a one, where we could identify three or four individuals. But as soon as it becomes more than like four or five you could say, ‘No, that’s a two instead of a one.’ And then when you have a full chorus of frogs or toads, then you know that’s a three.”
Participating in this survey has been a yearly highlight for Gray over the past decade. She said she loves the familiarity of visiting the same spots year after year, and listening closely to the soundscape of a spring or summer night.
“I was there the other night listening, and I could hear four different varieties of frogs and toads trilling,” Gray said. “And the owls were hooting and the moon was almost full. It was magical. It was just a magical thing to do, and you feel like you’re doing something good, you know you’re making a difference.”
Gray and other volunteers make a difference by helping wildlife officials monitor the health of frogs and toads in Michigan and, in turn, the health of their ecosystem. So when Gray heard that the survey wasn’t happening this year, she took it hard.
“I was outraged. I was just so shocked and flabbergasted and I couldn’t believe that they would abandon their data,” she said. “So I fired off some angry emails to people, and surprisingly they got back to me.”
WHY CANCEL THE SURVEY?
The DNR’s rationale has to do with staffing.
“For any kind of public-facing project, especially one as large as the frog and toad survey was, we require quite a bit of energy and time and resources into coordinating volunteers,” said Tony Henehan, with the Michigan DNR.
He said that includes getting data sheets out to people, reaching out to new volunteers, training them, answering questions, and tracking all of the above.
"In addition to that," he said, "that person would also need to manage all the data sheets as they come in at the end of the season.”
That means doing a quality check on the hundreds of survey packets that come in, and making sure they’re entered correctly into the DNR’s database. Then the DNR would also need to coordinate requests for that data that come in from outside researchers. Henehan said that’s just some of the work that goes into the tail end of the annual survey.
“That is a lot of time for someone to do," he said. "And so whoever would take that on needs to have a lot of time built into the position that does that. We currently just don’t have that capacity."
So how did the DNR manage all of that in the past?
From the mid-1990s through 2015, they had help from the federal government.
Back then, the U.S. Geological Survey ran a service called the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program. That set the framework for many states that launched amphibian surveys in the 90s, and USGS employees helped process the data.
But that program ended in 2015, leaving states on their own. Michigan ran its own survey for six years, until it deemed the effort to be too heavy a lift.
BRINGING IT BACK
A similar scenario played out a few states over, in Minnesota. Its survey was canceled in 2017. But this year, it’s coming back. Mags Edwards is the non-game wildlife community science coordinator for the Minnesota DNR. They’re overseeing a relaunch of the frog and toad survey, with some big changes.
“The data previously was collected on paper data sheets, and some people are still doing that,” Edwards said. “But we’ve developed a mobile application using a platform called Survey123 that volunteers can just record their data in the field right then.”
In this case, Edwards said, “recording data” has a double meaning.
“They are entering that one, two or three that you refer to, which we call ‘calling intensity.’ But there also is the option in the app to just hit record and for them to record what they’re hearing," said Edwards. “Which is pretty neat because in the past, if people thought they were hearing something unexpected they could try to use a tape recorder, or try to get a photo. But trying to get a photo of a frog at night is pretty much impossible.”
Edwards said they can see the volunteers’ data being uploaded in real time. And that’s a time-saver. The Minnesota DNR no longer has to wait till the end of the survey to tally it all up.
“So I’ve got a map on my screen right now and I can click on people’s survey routes and see what they have been hearing,” said Edwards. “It is an amazing way to help schedule the survey.”
Edwards says the public response to this relaunch has been very positive.
“One of the first volunteers that I spoke to, she was just so glad that the survey was coming back and she talked about how at the end of her survey run, she always just shuts off the car and just sits there and listens. And that she can almost feel these frogs and toads calling around her when its a full chorus like that,” Edwards said.
“And I just know that it’s very important for people to be connected to their natural world, because we take care of what we care about. I think having an opportunity for people to feel connected to the world that we live in and the world that we depend on is valuable in and of itself.”
Minnesota’s relaunch could foreshadow what’s to come in Michigan. Tony Henehan with the Michigan DNR says a relaunch is the ultimate goal.
The volunteers who have been doing this are very passionate about this survey. We don’t want to stop that for them. And we don’t want to break those relationships. We simply want to retool it and revamp it so that way it can keep going for another 20 years and be a good survey for us.
“I hope it comes back,” said Kathy Gray on the Old Mission Peninsula.
“I hope I’m still around when they bring it back. I said to them in my emails — and I was angry at the time and I’m glad they responded so graciously — I thanked them when I wrote back and I said ‘Please count us in. We want to continue to do this.’ You know, it’s date night.”
Grey said she’ll still go out to hear the frogs and toads this season, but she looks forward to doing her part for their conservation again.
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