COLUMBIA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — As they were tipped out of sterile plastic containers into the murky environment of the Columbia Wildlife Refuge's ponds on a cloudy Friday morning, hundreds of tiny northern leopard frogs huddled together, unsure of their alien environs.

This was, after all, their first glimpse of the wild. Collected as eggs earlier this spring by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and grown for months in the Oregon Zoo's conservation lab and at Washington State University, the frogs have lived pampered and sheltered lives until this day.

Finally, with a little cajoling from a friendly scientist, the juvenile croakers — around the size of a thumbnail — finally began to leap one by one into the waters of their new home east of Royal City.

The project, done through a partnership between the WDFW, WSU, the Oregon Zoo and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, serves to bolster the population of the endangered northern leopard frog, which was once abundant throughout the Pacific Northwest.

However, habitat loss, disease, competition from non-native species and the compounding effects of climate change have all likely contributed to knocking the wind out of the spotted amphibian, according to the WDFW. The species landed on the endangered species list in Washington in 1999, and there is currently only one known population left in the Evergreen State.

Researchers with the partner agencies are working to turn that trend around, raising the northern leopard frogs from eggs to froglets in order to bypass many of the dangers threatening the species. The ponds where the frogs were released have themselves been a longstanding project for the WDFW, which has worked to restore the wetland habitat and reduce the load of non-native plants.

If the reintroduced frogs are successful, it could indicate that the rehabilitation of the local environment has also been successful, as the endangered frogs are a good indicator of the health of their ecosystems and play an important role in the food chain, according to WDFW biologist Emily Grobowski.

"Northern leopard frogs are an important indicator of water quality; they are both predator and prey, and many children around the country have their first significant encounters with wildlife by meeting one of these frogs," Grobowski said in a press release. "If we can improve and conserve wetland habitat that is good for the frogs, we will also benefit other species ranging from other amphibians to waterfowl and deer.

The reintroduction efforts of the assorted agencies were only made possible and effective through teaming up, said Lisa Wilson, deputy project leader for the Central Washington National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

"This project was only possible because of the team of partners pulled together by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife," Wilson said in a press release. "Collectively, we were able to take a giant leap forward to protect northern leopard frogs on Columbia National Wildlife Refuge because so many partners were able and willing to collaborate."

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