RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The small town of Beatty, Nevada sits on the edge of Death Valley, between Jackass Flats and Sober Up Gulch.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Hey, we're just reading a map here, and that map shows a town that has become the scene of a small environmental miracle.
MONTAGNE: People there have revived a species that seemed headed for extinction just a few years ago: the Amargosa toad.
INSKEEP: The saviors of this amphibian are not the usual environmentalist types. The toad owes its comeback to an unlikely coalition of ranchers, off-road racers, opponents of big government and the local brothel.
NPR's Jon Hamilton reports.
JON HAMILTON: Amargosa toads are warty, speckled creatures about the size of your palm. They come out at night, so that's when you count them.
Unidentified Woman: All right. So, let's see. Do we have enough pails?
HAMILTON: The Nevada Department of Wildlife organizes toad counts near Beatty twice a year. Tonight, several volunteers carrying buckets and flashlights are shuffling through a cattle pasture. Brian Hobbs is the scientist in charge.
Mr. BRIAN HOBBS (Scientist): There's one right there.
Unidentified Man: Toad or rat?
Mr. HOBBS: Another toad.
Unidentified Man: We found toad city over here.
Mr. HOBBS: Yup.
HAMILTON: The toads live anywhere there is water. And even though we're in the desert, there's quite a bit of water, thanks to natural hot springs and a fitful creek known as the Amargosa River.
The volunteers place an electronic tag under the skin of any toad that doesn't already have one. It's quiet work. Female toads are silent. So are the males, unless they're being mounted by another male or squeezed by a scientist.
(Soundbite of toad)
Mr. HOBBS: Oh, there's his call. Yep, that's his release call.
Unidentified Man: Ah! Gross.
Mr. HOBBS: Did it pee on you?
Unidentified Man: Yeah, a lot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HAMILTON: After more than an hour, the team has found only nine toads. So they head down to the house of a rancher named David Spicer.
Mr. DAVID SPICER (Rancher): Hey, there.
Mr. HOBBS: Hey, Dave.
Mr. SPICER: Good, how are you doing?
HAMILTON: Spicer tells them his yard is packed with toads.
Mr. SPICER: When we go over by this light, we're going to really - all need every one of us. There's like 50, 60 that'll be over there.
Unidentified Woman: All right.
Mr. SPICER: An enormous amount of them.
Unidentified Woman: All right.
Mr. SPICER: We're like toad farmers around here.
HAMILTON: Spicer's right. We've hit the toad mother lode. Pretty soon, the buckets are full.
(Soundbite of toad release call)
Mr. SPICER: What you're seeing tonight with all these animals as we're walking around here picking them up are the results of active land management, you know, active habitat management.
HAMILTON: Spicer says he's run miles of underground pipe around his property to create breeding pools and habitat for the toads. But here's the thing: He's doing all this in part because he really, really does not like the Endangered Species Act.
Mr. SPICER: Nobody trusts the government anymore. Nobody wants to work with the government. The government always wants to take something from you, and they don't look at this as any different, you know?
HAMILTON: So more than a decade ago when some scientists said the toads needed federal protection because there were only a few dozen left, Spicer decided he needed to do something.
Mr. SPICER: Of course, you need to defend yourself against such actions like that, because that's not a good thing to have happen, you know?
HAMILTON: Spicer feared the government would tell him he couldn't raise cattle or ride off-road vehicles on his own property. So he helped start a group called STORM-OV. It stands for Saving Toads thru Off-Road Racing, Ranching and Mining in Oasis Valley.
STORM-OV has worked with the government, with groups like the Nature Conservancy and with locals who just want to save the toad.
Mr. SPICER: We want to keep it in our hands, where it's at a local level, where we can do things and be nimble. You know, you start to get restricted by bureaucracy and monstrous, litigious things that go on in the Endangered Species Act, and we're definitely not going to have any fun on our own ranches anymore.
HAMILTON: The group has persuaded landowners to make their properties toad-friendly. And they've worked to get rid of invasive species that threaten the toad, like bullfrogs and crawdads, or plants like tamarisk and cattail that clog the springs where toads live.
(Soundbite of traffic)
HAMILTON: Other people in Beatty see toad preservation as a way to revive their town.
Ms. KAY TARR (Retired Schoolteacher; Member, Beatty Habitat Committee): That used to be the casino over there and, oh, it was a fun place before our town died.
HAMILTON: Kay Tarr is a retired schoolteacher who sits on the Beatty Habitat Committee. To the flock of kids who always seem to be scampering through her doublewide, she's known as Grandma Kay. Tarr likes to give tours of Beatty in her golf cart. A spinal tumor left her unable to work the brake and accelerator pedals with her feet, so she uses the tip of a cane.
Ms. TARR: We used to have street dances out here in the parking lot, bands up on the trucks, everybody dancing in the street. They even made me get out there and dance in my wheelchair.
(Soundbite of laughter)
HAMILTON: When the Bullfrog gold mine was still operating a few miles away, more than 2,000 people lived here. Now, there might be half that many.
But Tarr thinks the Amargosa toad could revive Beatty.
Ms. TARR: See those benches and the trash cans? We'd like to put those all along the riverbed. And this right here is where we would like to start our trail.
HAMILTON: The Habitat Committee wants to create a nature trail along the stretch of Amargosa River that runs through town.
Ms. TARR: And here's a little gully here that we'll have to build a bridge across or something. See, we've got a lot of work to do here.
Ms. TARR: Gosh, there's a tamarisk there. Look at the trash. Oh, my gosh. Oh!
HAMILTON: The idea is that this toad habitat will encourage visitors to stay just a little longer and perhaps come back.
Shirley Harlan is president of Friends of the Amargosa Toad.
Ms. SHIRLEY HARLAN (President, Friends of the Amargosa Toad): It's been slow and it's been tedious and it's been frustrating, but within the past, I'd say, three years, have we gotten public educated sufficiently to realize that this is an asset.
HAMILTON: For everyone, even folks at Angel's Ladies. It's a licensed brothel run by a couple who used to be in the funeral home business. It even has its own landing strip, complete with the carcass of a twin-engine plane that crashed there more than 30 years ago.
Tom Arillaga helps take care of the place.
Mr. TOM ARILLAGA (Angel's Ladies): Here, I'll show you one of the bungalows. This is - we have two of these bungalows, plus every girl has their own room decorated, you know, for customers.
HAMILTON: This brothel is toad-friendly, right down to the clothing-optional swimming pool out back.
Mr. ARILLAGA: We'll go in right here.
(Soundbite of gate opening)
HAMILTON: Arillaga says lots of toads hang out here after dark.
Mr. ARILLAGA: We don't bother them or anything like that there. The pool is not chemically treated, so they go in the pool, and their eggs wash down the creek here, and then they hatch along the creek.
HAMILTON: And Arillaga says most swimmers seem to like the toads.
Mr. ARILLAGA: There's a few of them up there I've named, big fat ones that come out when I come up here at nighttime and swim. And they'll just come right up to me, and I sit there and I talk to them, and they look at me like I'm their friend, you know. They're kind of cute.
HAMILTON: It's a quirky kind of environmentalism, but it's to be working. This year's toad counts show that their numbers remain in the thousands. And earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the latest petition to place the Amargosa toad on the endangered species list.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: You can get a look at those toads at npr.org.
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