Snow packs are decreasing across the western United States and researchers want to know what that means for everything that relies on snow melt, from farms and power plants to the cascades frog. It lives way up in the mountains of the Northwest and thrive in alpine wetlands fed by melting snow. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Ashley Ahearn has the story of this little frog and its shrinking habitat.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Things are looking drier than normal in Washington's Olympic Mountains.

MAUREEN RYAN: It's actually dried out quite a bit already this year. Usually this trail is running with water.

AHEARN: Maureen Ryan is looking for the wet spots. She's a researcher with the University of Washington and an expert on amphibians that live at high elevation. We hike down a steep ridgeline, crisscrossing mountain goat tracks. We're headed to Ryan's lab, you might call it. She studies tiny snow-fed potholes of water cupped in the folds of high mountain ranges in the Northwest, perfect habitat for cascades frogs. But as the global climate warms, that habitat is receding.

RYAN: What's happening to these frogs is in no way dissimilar from what is happening to us, even if we can't necessarily see it. So these frogs are reliant on snowmelt for the water that they need to live.

AHEARN: Just like people in the Pacific Northwest rely on snowmelt to supply water for agriculture, industry, hydropower and drinking water.


AHEARN: Cascades frogs spend most of the year beneath dozens of feet of snow. But for a few short months in the summer, the frogs come to warm sunny ponds like this one to feed and mate. And while they're at it, they make what some people describe as a chuckling sound - but we'll get to that later.


AHEARN: The team fans out, squelching through the muck and slowly scanning the water for the signature dappled brown and yellow heads of the frogs. Most of them are about the size of a child's hand. Their bug eyes peer out at us from beneath the shelter of the banks.

RYAN: Got a big female now.

AHEARN: Now comes the crazy part. After the scientists have circled the pond and caught about 30 frogs, they pull out a device that looks like the scanner at the grocery store check out.


RYAN: So what we have here is a pit tag reader. Just turned it on. You know, it just detects whether there's a pit tag under the skin of the frog. And then, if there is, it reads it and gives us a number and that's an individual identification code for that particular frog.

AHEARN: The team has been inserting tiny magnetic tags, each about the size of a grain of rice, beneath the skin of these frogs for more than a decade. It doesn't harm the frogs.

RYAN: So we have some frogs that we've caught that we know are at least 13, 14 years old, might be older. It's pretty amazing.

AHEARN: Along with their frog scanning, the team is monitoring the temperature and depth of the ponds like this one. They want to find out when they're drying up during the course of the summer and what that means for the frogs.

RYAN: Last year, we had, you know, a good number of ponds where the ponds dried up before the tadpoles had metamorphosed and so they didn't survive there.

AHEARN: Ryan worries that with less snowpack and hotter summers, more egg sacks and tadpoles will be stranded out of water. That could ultimately decimate the population, unless they can move into deeper alpine lakes that are more resilient to the warming climate. The problem there is that many of those lakes have been stocked with trout for recreational fishing and the trout find the cascades frog delicious.


AHEARN: We move on to sample several more ponds. We're seeing lots of frogs but still haven't heard the alleged chuckling call. Maureen Ryan says we're going to checkout one more sight. We hunker down in the heather by a snow-lined pond. The frogs are all around us but they're silent, just staring at us like we're unwelcome party crashers.

RYAN: One on the rock, one in the grass, the two that are right under us. And there's another one that's under the bank over there.

AHEARN: We hide, listening. Minutes pass and then...


RYAN: These ponds are kind of a microcosm of what's going on in the West. Most of the American West, it gets its water from snowmelt. And that runs our agricultural system and our energy system and our, you know, tap water and every, you know, our industry - all of those things.


AHEARN: The Pacific Northwest has lost about 50 percent of its snowpack over the last 50 years. In the future, sounds like this could become even harder to record.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in Olympic National Park.

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