SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

60 years later, 'Ernie's frogs' are still croaking

Local man flew a bucket of frogs north from Seattle


September 13, 2022

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska -  Alaskans have been known to occasionally try to improve upon the nature around them.

Sometimes that involves introducing animal species that are not native to the area. Although the Alaska Department of Fish and Game usually frowns upon efforts to introduce non-native populations, it does happen.

For example, the goats that populate the mountains around Deer Mountain are actually transplants, brought in from elsewhere years ago. There were also two attempts in past decades to establish an elk population on Gravina Island but neither was successful. On the other hand, the elk population on Zarembo Island near Wrangell was brought in from elsewhere.

One of the most noteworthy times an introduction happened has resulted in generations of Ketchikan residents enjoying the songs of the only colony of tree frogs in the state at the so-called "frog ponds" along the old road to Ward Lake.

jpg 60 years later, 'Ernie's frogs' are still croaking (Frog Pond - Ketchikan, Alaska)

Frog Pond

At certain times during the year, frog song lovers can pull into the frog pond parking lot - now the end of the old road, which has been turned into a trail that continues to Ward Lake, and hear the frogs croaking away, primarily during the spring mating season.

Thirty years ago, government scientists took an interest in why this singular colony of chorus frogs - also sometimes called tree frogs -- had taken root in Ketchikan and nowhere else in Alaska. It was surmised that the frogs had possibly hitched a ride on logs floating north from Canada or the Pacific Northwest.

Turned out the frogs had indeed come north.

But in a much more comfortable fashion, 62 years ago.

In June of 1992, the Ketchikan Daily News ran a story in which a wildlife biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife, Brad Norman, noted that the only population of Pacific Tree Frogs in Alaska was located at the frog ponds.

Norman told the Daily News that it was possible that the frogs had traveled north on timber barges or log rafts and then "jumped ship" at Ward Cove and had moved inland and populated the two ponds. He said they were clearly "distinct" from the area's normal amphibians, the western toad and the rough-skinned newt.

That story caused long-time local resident Ernie DeBoer to "fess up" and explain just how the tree frogs had arrived in Ketchikan. He brought them.

DeBoer, a 75-year Ketchikan resident who last year celebrated his 100 th birthday at the Ketchikan Pioneer's Home, saw the article in the Daily News and called the newspaper.

He told the Daily News that he grew up on a farm in Washington state and missed the sounds the frogs made during mating season when he came to Ketchikan. So, in 1960 on a trip South, DeBoer - a longtime local truck and bus driver - decided to do something about it.

He went to a pond in Kirkland and filled up a 5-gallon bucket with pollywogs and frogs. The he took them to the Seattle airport.

"Pan American personnel were skeptical of letting DeBoer take a bucket of frogs on the plane but decided they didn't want them in the plane's luggage department," the Daily News reported on June 10, 1992. "So DeBoer said the bucket flew near his feet the whole trip. After landing at Annette Island (where the old airport used to be), the frogs were loaded into a float plane for a ride to Ketchikan. Once they arrived in Ketchikan they were taken out to the ponds and let go, said DeBoer."

DeBoer told the Daily News there were different species of frogs in the bucket and that he estimated he brought back about 150 frogs.

He noted that the frogs are particularly active and vocal between May 15 and June 15 each year.

" 'Sometimes someone will call me and say 'your frogs are croaking,' " DeBoer told the Daily News. " 'I know a lot of people go out there.' "

DeBoer also said that when the frogs are quiet, he can sometimes get them croaking by making the croaking sounds himself.

More than 60 years later, the frogs are still croaking away near Ward Lake.

But that is not the end of the story.

When scientists get involved in something, there usually has to be a report of some sorts. Six years later, in 1998, the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society weighed in with "On the Establishment of the Pacific Chorus Frog Pseudacris regilla (Amphibia, Anura, Hylidae), at Ketchikan, Alaska" by Nick Waters.

Waters, along with Tom Hassler and Brad Norman, produced the report through Humboldt State University in northern California.

The report noted that scientists had first noticed the isolated colony back in 1976 but had only begun to seriously study it in 1991 and then recounted the tale of the two newspaper stories. The scientists then spent the next several years, through 1994 continuing to the study the colony. They determined that while the colony was healthy, it had not spread beyond the initial ponds that DeBoer had dropped them off at.

The report also noted that DeBoer had also likely introduced the northern red-legged frog and the western Washington bullfrog from the same bucket, but there was no evidence those frogs had survived at Ward Lake.

The scientists came up with no specific reasons why the frogs haven't dispersed more widely since their introduction, but that the location near the ponds of a once busy access road might have had some effect in limiting their spread over the years. The scientists also suggested that future scientists do genetic studies of the Alaskan chorus frogs to see if they still have the same genetic makeup of the frogs in Kirkland where they came from.

Silent through all this, has been the Alaska Department of Fish and Game which usually fights to remove any "invasive" species. One suspects that any effort to remove the non-Native tree frogs from the Ward Lake frog ponds would create a "chorus" of disapproval from the local frog aficionado and that Fish and Game simply has bigger frog legs to fry.

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Columns by Dave Kiffer

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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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