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When you’re as rare and vulnerable as a black toad, you can’t afford to be shy about romance.

Surrounded by unforgiving and forever secluded wilderness on a small patch of irrigated ranch about 50 miles southeast of Yosemite National Park, black toads inhabit the smallest range of any amphibian in North America. .

So, as the breeding season arrives, as it did last month, this high desert basin nestled between the Inyo and White mountain ranges resonates with the treble of the toad. chirping, which recall the gaze of chicks.

But this “toad’s paradise” wouldn’t be possible without the annual cooperation of ranch owner Deep Springs College. One of the smallest institutions of higher education in the United States, Deep Springs provides loving toads with all the basic comforts they’ll need to pair up and produce new egg and tadpole cultures.

Deep Springs College director of operations Padraic MacLeish, right, and university president Sue Darlington search for black toads in a Deep Springs Valley ditch.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Among those necessary comforts is peace, quiet, and plenty of space for the 2-inch-long black toads with warty skin and golden eyes to calm down.

Cattle are kept away from springs that ooze from the base of a nearby cliff from March through September – ensuring courting toads aren’t trampled on, said Tim Gipson, 63, ranch principal at the college .

“My priorities are cattle, toads, water and pasture,” Gipson said. “We only graze cattle near springs in winter, when toads are dormant and hibernate underground.”

The college, a complex of low-rise buildings surrounded by poplars, occupies a remote corner of the high desert, about 20 miles from the Nevada border. Framed by volcanic peaks, rock towers and alluvial cones dotted with sagebrush, the region is the very definition of “remote”.

Cattle grazing and saving black toads have been the dominant forces in campus operations for half a century and a conservation success story at a time when amphibians face declines and extinctions in the United States. And in the world.

Once abundant in the vast floodplains of the Great Basin, only around 8,500 black toads cling to existence by their stocky little toes in college, a relict population isolated about 12,000 years ago when things started to heat up. .

California’s tiny college is a love-smitten toad’s paradise

A black toad floats in water in its isolated habitat on the campus of Deep Springs College.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The first scientific name for the toad, Bufo exsul, recognizes his extreme isolation. It means “exiled toad”.

California’s tiny college is a love-smitten toad’s paradise

Greg Pauley, herpetological curator at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, was a graduate student when he first ventured into Deep Valley Springs two decades ago.

“It was a bit of a shock to see how desolate, isolated and critically important their habitat is,” he recalls. “What is terrifying now are the increasing demands to use the desert aquifers that feed these sites.”

This is one of many genetically distinct toad species that only exist in very restricted spring-fed habitats and are prone to disease, inbreeding, predation, development, and groundwater pumping. Now, longer droughts and rising temperatures due to climate change are also disrupting the delicate balance of life and death in these habitats.

California’s tiny college is a love-smitten toad’s paradise

Padraic MacLeish, director of operations at Deep Springs College, searches for black toads.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“These endangered creatures face an overwhelming number of threats to their perseverance,” said C. Richard Tracy, 76, professor emeritus at the University of Nevada Reno. The threats, he said, “are compounded by their remarkably small scope.”

“The situation requires urgent attention and strong conservation initiatives to protect and monitor these species,” said Tracy.

Cooperative management between Deep Springs College and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife helps protect black toads and their water sources.

On a recent weekday morning, Padraic MacLeish, 63, director of operations at Deep Springs, led a group of visitors on a black toad breeding stream tour.

At the water’s edge, MacLeish carefully scanned dense thickets of willows and bulrushes, saying, “Black toads hide well.”

California’s tiny college is a love-smitten toad’s paradise

The black toad is one of many genetically distinct toad species that only exist in very restricted spring-fed habitats.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Moments later, he nodded appreciatively at a pair of toads, one of them floating placidly with only his nose and bulging eyes visible above the water’s surface, and the other climbing. on a pile of leaves.

A few yards away, tangled in twigs and submerged pebbles, were long strands of toad eggs that looked like strings of tiny black pearls.

With luck, the eggs will hatch in due course, and the little tadpoles will begin a precarious existence.

Susan Darlington, 63, who was named president of Deep Springs College in September, is among those keen to get a glimpse of the toad’s story unfolding at the sources.

California’s tiny college is a love-smitten toad’s paradise

Deep Springs College President Sue Darlington takes a close-up photo of a black toad.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kneeling on muddy banks amid the overwhelming odor of cow manure may seem unpleasant, but for Darlington it was the opportunity to take close-up photos of one of the rarest amphibians in the world. planet in its only stronghold – its backyard.

After taking dozens of photos with a macro lens from different angles, she remained fascinated.

“Wow! I saw our legendary black toads and I have pictures to show,” she said. “I’m a real Deep Springer now!”

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