Sierra Nevada Backcountry Trip #1: Frogs, micro botany, and the resurrection of diversity

"The only real antidote of anxiety is a sense of wonder”.
-Ravi Ravindra

"OH MY GOSH, YOU GUYS--LOOK AT THE FROGS!!!"

This was the sound of a coworker's reaction to seeing mountain yellow-legged frogs for the first time. These aren't just any frogs. They live only in these high elevation lakes and have suffered catastrophic losses from non-native fish predation and infectious disease. At a series of lakes that perfectly mirror the craggy, snow-flanked peaks above, we do our restoration work for these frogs. We are taking out the non-native fish to give them a fighting chance, and it is working—this site has one of the largest populations of mountain yellow-legged frogs around.

We were all gleeful, giddy--we had just hiked 13 miles and climbed over 3,000 feet--twice--to get here. All along the way, around every corner, hiding beneath each boulder--was another bounty of striking beauty. Such is the high Sierra in springtime. Yes it is August, but seasonally it is spring since the snow has just melted and the buzzing blooming life is just getting underway. The tiniest imaginable versions of old familiar plants are growing here--paintbrush 3 inches high; manzanita a mere 2 inches high, more of a groundcover.

Midweek, we hiked up to a higher lake in the basin—a smaller one that has had most of the fish removed. The difference was striking. Grey-crowned rosy finches abounded, feeding their young, almost colliding with us as they caught insects all around us. The mountain yellow-legged frogs, though, were the most astounding. In the slower-moving inlet stream to the lake, their egg masses could be found all over the place. Every time you took a step, another handful of frogs would jump into the water. Tadpoles of every size swam in the shallows, some just hatched from their eggs. The entire lake seemed like it was humming with a broad diversity of life, all because the non-native fish were no longer there.

I understand the basic ecological concepts behind the work we have set out to do. Yet, to experience true recovery--fully and directly--gave me an altogether different understanding, and a sense of hope I'm not accustomed to in conservation.

 

 Mountain yellow-legged frog

Mountain yellow-legged frog

 Mountain yellow-legged frog egg mass

Mountain yellow-legged frog egg mass

 Mountain yellow-legged frog and tadpoles

Mountain yellow-legged frog and tadpoles