Inside the emergency effort to save Quebec’s tiny chorus frogs
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHANIE FODEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
On an April afternoon by a pond behind a suburban playground in Longueuil, 20 minutes southeast of Montreal, the air was full of the sound of cat squeals – not rude cries, but rather a multitude of bell-shaped croaks from dozens of male frogs trying to attract mates.
“There’s a chorus of chorus frogs,” said Lynn Bouthillier, a biologist with the Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks.
Wearing waterproof fishing waders, Ms. Bouthillier crossed the pond and picked up a half-submerged minnow trap under the shallow brown water. She carefully opened the cage, shook it a bit, then pinched a barrel-sized chorus frog with its deflated swollen throat and sucker fingers reaching for the air. She was holding in her arms a surviving member of a species that has lost more than 90% of its critical habitat in Quebec since 1960 and has been federally listed as threatened for more than a decade, although frog populations exist elsewhere in Canada and the United States.
Ms. Bouthillier dropped the frog in a plastic container, which she took from her car and placed in a cooler destined for the basement of the Montreal Biodome, a natural science museum with habitats for wildlife. There, an emergency conservation effort is working to replenish local populations of tiny chorus frogs, but it could be too little too late.
Ms. Bouthillier’s work with the Ministry and the Biodôme is just one part of a multi-pronged effort to save Quebec’s native chorus frogs as Montreal’s expanding suburbs continue to consume wetlands. where they thrive. Frogs are indicators of biodiversity, as they are eaten by other rare species, making them vital to the local food chain.
Tommy Montpetit, 51, grew up near the Longueuil playground and Boisé du Tremblay, a wooded area that is home to 25% of the chorus frog population in Montérégie, Quebec, making it one of the the most important for the species in the province.
He remembers that when he was six or seven years old, he overheard a councilman telling his parents that he would not let the developers take over the woods and the swamps. “He said, ‘No, no, no, nothing will be built in front of you,'” recalls Mr. Montpetit. “And around eight or nine o’clock, I saw the housing estates start in front of my house. That’s when I learned that you can’t trust someone who says it’s going to end.
As director of conservation for the environmental organization Ciel et Terre, Mr. Montpetit has spent the past 18 years advocating with government authorities to protect the chorus frog. In addition to the species’ biodiversity benefits, he said, frog wetlands are essential for humans because ponds can act as natural sponges during flooding.
But Mr Montpetit said his calls to protect the chorus frog from its greatest existential threat beyond climate change – land development – are being largely ignored. He fought to preserve habitats in the Montreal suburbs of La Prairie, Île Perrot and his hometown of Longueuil, sometimes successfully but sometimes not.
“I get calls every day: ‘Oh, there’s a bulldozer here. Oh, there’s a bulldozer there,” he said. “I don’t even have time to help the frog scientifically.”
Last year, Mr. Montpetit’s requests to the Longueuil municipal administration to add several frog-friendly underground passages under a proposed road that crosses the Boisé du Tremblay were ignored. So he joined another environmental organization, SNAP Quebec, in threatening to sue the federal government unless it rescinded Quebec’s approval of the project and halted construction.
In November, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced an emergency order to halt construction, but the road extension was already nearing completion. Road signs, fire hydrants, ditches and a small underpass, insufficient according to Mr. Montpetit for frogs, had already been installed. “It’s drying out the wetlands on both sides, so we’re just waiting for someone to do something, and nobody does anything,” he said.
If the wetlands where chorus frogs breed continue to disappear, Montpetit estimates that they could be extinct in the province in just over a decade.
That is to say if the project to reconstitute them does not succeed.
Beneath the alligators, parrots and starfish of the Biodôme’s five ecosystems, the chorus frogs that Ms. Bouthillier collected from the ponds of Longueuil perch on logs in glass terrariums. Since 2008, the Biodôme has sought to raise the tiny frogs and return them to the wild, but the process has not been easy.
A complication has been confusion over the precise species of chorus frog that should be saved. Initially, biologists thought the Montreal area had Western Chorus Frogs, which are found primarily in southwestern Ontario. But recent genetic testing has suggested the local amphibians may be Boreal Chorus Frogs, which are found across Canada and the United States. Be that as it may, the researchers are convinced that the number of frogs is decreasing in Quebec.
Biologists tried showering chorus frogs with rain and putting them in a fridge to simulate winter, but they still wouldn’t breed in the spring. “We know a lot more about the farming of amphibian species when it’s a tropical species that people have in their homes than we know about the species that we have here,” said Gheylen Daghfous, curator of the living collection of Space for Life, a museum district that includes the Biodôme and a few other institutions.
Then, in 2014, the Biodôme tried an experimental hormone treatment developed by Professor Vance Trudeau of the University of Ottawa. It worked: the chorus frogs started breeding.
In 2016, hundreds of Biodôme students juvenile chorus frogs were released into ponds in St-Constant, south of Montreal, and then into Mont-Saint-Bruno National Park near Longueuil in 2021. The chorus frogs had not been heard at Mont-Saint-Bruno in recent memory. The location was chosen because it was close to other habitats and was already protected from development.
Sophie Tessier, Mont-Saint-Bruno’s conservation coordinator, said she spent the spring worrying that the tiny frogs wouldn’t survive the winter. But then she received a text from a colleague saying they had heard the frogs’ enchanting breeding song. “I became like a mother who just learned that her own babies are safe,” she said.
But the chorus frog reintroduction project is not a miracle solution. Ecologists will have to wait at least five years to determine if the frogs will survive at Mont-Saint-Bruno after being raised in captivity. Even then, populations could die from natural causes such as fungus and warm spring temperatures that dry out ponds before tadpoles can develop.
“Do you know how many years I’ve been working – and a lot of people – have been working on this and we’re not even sure it’ll work?” said Madame Tessier. “I mean, do they really like this place?” I do not know. I should speak the language of the chorus frog to ask them if they feel safe here.
Mr. Montpetit compares the Biodôme’s efforts in favor of the chorus frog to attempts to breed pandas in zoos – it’s a last resort. Protecting natural habitats is essential, but conservation continues to be an uphill battle, despite the recent federal order. In April, Mr. Montpetit went to visit the Darveau marsh in Longueuil, where he had already heard frogs singing, only to find that it was covered with gravel.
However, the activist remains hopeful. The 30-year-old Mayor of Longueuil, Catherine Fournier, recently met with environmental groups and pledged to protect 1,500 hectares, which includes chorus frog habitats as well as the corridors that connect them. “Young people really want to save the frog,” Montpetit said. “But it’s a learning process for them, because it’s hard to compete against developers, who are worth millions, even billions of dollars.”
He admits Quebec’s chorus frogs may be too far gone at this point, but says he won’t give up.
“This is the fight of my life. I’m just going to go out there and keep going until I can’t anymore.
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