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Sea-to-Sky Highway frogs still croaking too soon

John Buchanan stands in a tunnel built for wildlife to pass under the highway near Squamish, B.C.

JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Did you hear the one about why the red-legged frogs crossed the road? Well, probably not, because they never made it to the other side.

The multimillion-dollar reconstruction of the Sea-to-Sky Highway for the 2010 Winter Olympics brought the road right through previously undisturbed forest and wetlands 14 kilometres south of Whistler. A portion of the road cuts directly through the migration route to and from the breeding habitat of the red-legged frogs.

Many of the frogs have not figured out how to leap across the highway. Despite government efforts estimated to cost $1.5-million, at least 207 amphibians were killed crossing the road in 2009. The results from this summer are not yet available.

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"They should never have put that highway in there," Squamish resident and local conservation activist John Buchanan said in an interview. "If I could wave a magic wand, I would ask them to actually tear that highway completely up and put it [back]to its original route."

Mr. Buchanan, 47, a blacksmith and home renovator, has been pushing the government to protect the frogs. The wetlands have numerous little ponds separated by volcanic lava and trees, he said. "During migration, the frogs try to get from one pond to another. They built the highway right through this area, but, of course, the frogs are still trying to get from one pond to another."

Angela Buckingham, chief environmental officer with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, said the ministry is looking for ways to save the frogs, based on the best advice it can find. "It is very much a learning experience," she said in a recent interview.

"It's hard to figure out what frogs are thinking, and a lot is speculation, but we are talking to amphibian experts, to an ecosystem biologist from the Ministry of Environment … we're trying to figure it out," Ms. Buckingham said.

The red-legged frog is listed under the federal Species At Risk Act. Its critical habitat along the Sea-To-Sky Highway is spread over 270 hectares near the village of Pinecrest. Although thousands of red-legged frogs live in these wetlands, they are officially designated an endangered species.

During construction, the Transportation Ministry shifted a portion of the highway realignment and an intersection to minimize the effect on the area. It captured and moved 683 red-legged frogs to adjacent wetlands. It built 11 underpasses to help frogs reach the other side. It put up fencing to direct them to the safest route.

The ministry put in passageways under the highway of one, two and three metres in diameter. Some frogs have used them, although they appear to have been more hesitant than coyotes, American mink, short-tail weasels, snowshoe hares, raccoons, squirrels and ducklings, the Environment Ministry says.

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Two theories have been bandied about to explain why the frogs do not use the passageways more often. Perhaps the underpasses are too cold for the frogs, which avoid sudden changes of temperature. Or maybe they are too dry.

The fencing also required extensive consultations with experts. Initial field work showed fencing was effective in reducing roadkill, the Environment Ministry says. However, more fencing was needed in key areas; it is currently being installed.

Also, the fences sagged under winter snowfall and were knocked over, possibly by big-footed bears and deer or by passing snowplows.

Ms. Buckingham said the Transportation Ministry implemented "best practices" for fencing and culverts recommended by experts. It paid special attention to materials, workmanship, location and construction of retaining walls. It is working with the Environment Ministry to find fencing that is more durable and can withstand the climate. "It is not an exact science. It is a very difficult situation and terrain to deal with," she said.

All environmental protective measures required by the federal and provincial regulators were implemented. But the efforts still receive mixed reviews. Ms. Buckingham was not discouraged.

"It is still early on in the game," Ms. Buckingham said. "We have put a lot of effort into it, talking to the experts, and we will continue to."

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