BASTROP, Texas (CBS Houston) — As Bastrop County rebounds from Texas’ most devastating wildfire season, residents’ most formidable barrier to normalcy is expected to come climbing from its burrows in the coming months.
From January to May, the endangered Houston toad holds its chorusing or mating season, one that’s crucial to the survival of the nearly obliterated species. Last season, fire claimed nearly 98 percent of its habitat in Bastrop State Park where an estimated 200 of the remaining 500 wild toads lived.
Before the Bastrop County Complex Fire was officially declared a disaster by FEMA, it had burned 34,068 acres and 1,645 homes.
Now, FEMA and state disaster resources face the challenging task of fully recovering the human population while ensuring the protection of the toad, a responsibility of theirs outlined by the federal Endangered Species Act.
In short, workers and homeowners at individual work sites throughout the region will have to watch where they step. If it’s determined by biologists that the work interferes with the chorus, work must stop.
Given a choice between frogs and humans, Robert Miller, owner of Bastrop’s Texas Grill, said, “I’m a people person.”
Sallie Blaylock, who owns Katy House Bed and Breakfast in nearby Smithville, said she can understand why stopping any work for the toad could be a “thorn in the foot” of any area resident or business owner.
A long-time resident, Blaylock has never seen one.
FEMA insists the frog has not impeded progress in the region so far, and representatives from federal and state emergency management agencies said reports from the field are similar to Blaylock’s, suggesting the toads haven’t yet started their chorus to attract females to nearby ponds where they reproduce.
Work stopped temporarily earlier this month as officials met to discuss how surveys of property will be conducted while cleanup crews continue picking up debris.
FEMA’s Kevin Hannes said his department will bring in its own, unbiased biologists trained to measure the impact of work at individual sites on the toads’ habitat. He said the move will streamline assessments.
“Speaking with biologists, it’s like asking two economists their opinion. You’ll get three answers.”
Asked how business is going, Blaylock said few vacationers are ready to visit a disaster zone.
Last September, the inn was temporary relief for rescue workers, emergency management personnel and anyone who lost a home.
“I didn’t have any money to donate, but I had beds and eggs and bacon,” she said. While working to supply survivors with supplies, she said many walked through the aisles of a depot resembling a grocery store like shell-shocked veterans, so unsure of what they were to do that they were unsure of what they needed — from toilet paper to a change of clothes.
Still, much is undetermined in the massive $13 million operation to restore people’s homes and businesses.
A cemetery runs much of the way along the route from Smithville to Bastrop, Blaylock added. The trunks of once-leafy trees now jut like severe headstones or blackened toothpicks from the ground.
Much of the toads’ fate is unknown still, too. It’s early in the season, so they’ve got time to emerge from their hideouts, where they avoided the heat. While a chorus could mean delays to homeowners, the sound from one toad would indicate to scientists that there’s at least one left in Bastrop.