Unwelcome bullfrogs, kids’ tears and nature in balance

The many ecosystems at the Durango Nature Center have a delicate balance between predator and prey. Usually, as we tell our students, this balance plays out, as it should, over a long period of time.

When food is scarce, species decline, causing more food to become available. This causes species to increase in future years. It’s an ebb and flow. Just a slight alteration can change the relationship between different species.

Year after year, kids beg to take home the lizards, horny toads and snakes they catch during our programs and turn them into pets. We have to explain each year, sometimes in spite of tears, that this is where these creatures live and we can’t upset the balance of life.

However, we have recently been faced with a conundrum. There is one species at the Nature Center that truly shouldn’t be there. Bullfrogs are a nonnative invasive species that eat leopard frogs, the native frog that lives in the pond at the Nature Center.

The native leopard frogs don’t stand a chance against the voracious appetite and territorial personality of the bullfrog, the largest frog in North America. We routinely have to clear the pond of bullfrogs in an attempt to save the native species.

Nobody particularly likes the task of bullfrog elimination, so the summer staff have a running joke among themselves that the only animal that kids can take home from the Nature Center is a bullfrog. The thinking goes that one will never be caught, as daunting as they look and as swift as they are in the water.

However, during the current session of summer camp, one intrepid camper made it his personal mission to do just that. He spent more than an hour stalking and planning. His persistence paid off and he caught, literally, the “king of the pond.” The counselors were flummoxed because of their whimsical promise. The kids all named it “Raptor” because it made a sound like a hawk when it was trying to evade the net. It came back from camp in a small container (small for a frog that was nearly a foot long).

Of course, the hero who caught the frog was immediately shut down by his mother (smart lady). So, all eyes turned to me. My son declared that since his mother ran the Nature Center, she would let him keep it and that one of the boys could share it. This means, of course, that it will live exclusively at our house and that his friend can come see it. All the other campers heaved a collective sigh of relief that Raptor would be saved through domestication and not allowed to succumb to the fate of other bullfrogs caught at the Nature Center.

I looked at this massive frog and swallowed hard. What to do? We couldn’t let it go to attack the native fish and frogs in the Animas River, or take it back to the Nature Center. And the kids had already named it. My son and at least 20 kids were looking up at me with hopeful eyes, knowing I would save him.

Then, from the universe, a solution was presented.

One of the counselors said to another, “Adam, you’re from South Carolina. Aren’t you making a trip home between sessions? You could take Raptor back to his natural habitat, which is below the Mississippi.”

A cry of joy went up that Raptor could go back where he truly belonged. So, Raptor, saved for now, sits in a tank in my son’s room as I hope for his survival until he can make his journey home. And the leopard frogs at the Nature Center have a slightly higher chance of surviving the summer – that is, if they aren’t eaten by the three bullfrogs that remain.

sally@durangonature-studies.org or 382-9244. Sally Shuffield is executive director of Durango Nature Studies.