Stateside Podcast: The amphibian advocate
How do you know it’s really spring in Michigan? Early morning bird songs might be the marker for many of us, but our state’s frogs and toads aren’t lacking for musical talent either. For nearly three decades, volunteers with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources used those sounds to monitor the amphibians’ populations.
The DNR recently ended the long-running survey, citing the fact that they no longer had a dedicated staff person to oversee the program, which took a significant amount of staff time and effort.
So, how was it that they kept the survey running all those years? Enter Lori Sargent.
She was a non-game wildlife biologist with the Michigan DNR for decades. And it was Sargent who actually created the frog and toad survey, modeled on a similar program in Wisconsin. When the federal government began their own amphibian data collection, Sargent was one of the state wildlife staff who advised them on how to set it up. Luckily for the feds (and the frogs), Sargent’s survey was an incredibly popular citizen science project.
“You know, as we were pulling this together and and thinking up the protocols of how to do the surveys and thinking of ways that, you know, the average citizen could do it, I was thinking, gosh, we won't get anybody to want to do this,” Sargent recalled. “But I was amazed. We put out the first news release, and I couldn't handle the number of calls that I was getting.”
Sargent said in the first couple of years of the program, they had around 400 routes around Michigan for volunteers to walk and record the number of frogs and toads they could identify. The DNR held trainings all across the state teaching volunteers to identify the different types of frog and toad calls and track their population.
Sargent retired from the DNR in 2018, and her signature program lasted a few years before being shelved by the department because of lack of staff capacity. Sargent was disappointed to learn the program she created would end.
“I'm kind of sad that it didn't keep going because really the value in this type of data is to get the most years, consecutive years that you can so that you can start seeing trends.”
But not all hope is lost for any former survey volunteers – or aspiring amphibian trackers – hoping to help keep track of toads and frogs. Another citizen science project, run entirely by volunteers and not the state, is still collecting data. It’s called the Michigan Herp Atlas Project and it lets you record observation data about the state’s amphibians and reptiles from a web-based form.
As for Lori Sargent, she’s spending a lot more time with a different kind of animal: dogs. She started a second career as a part-time veterinary technician, and also breeds and shows dogs professionally.
“So, yeah, I'm real busy,” she said, laughing.
Hear more about Lori Sargent’s work on the frog and toad survey above.
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Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.