SPOKANE — Molly Wiebush knelt in a shady spot by a downed log, turning over rocks and shredding rotten wood as she searched for signs of gastropod life.
Spending the summer chasing snails and slugs has given the Idaho Fish and Game technician an appreciation for how elusive the forest decomposers can be. Snails the size of sequins are difficult to spot. And with their camouflage coloring, slugs blend into the leaf litter on the forest floor.
"It's really like a treasure hunt," said Wiebush, admiring the variegated markings on a hemphillia, or jumping slug, that she pulled from a piece of bark.
New efforts to document wildlife in the Idaho Panhandle and northeastern Washington include the often-overlooked inhabitants of streams, ponds and decaying vegetation. This is the world of frogs, toads and salamanders, slugs and snails. The surveys are part of the Multi-species Baseline Initiative, an ambitious endeavor to collect information on 20 less-studied creatures so their habitat can be managed to reduce the risk of population decline.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is the lead agency for the initiative, which is partly funded through a $950,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant. Other state, federal and tribal agencies are partners in the five-year data collection effort, which will continue through 2015.
Winter field studies focused on seldom-seen forest carnivores — wolverines, fishers and lynx. This spring and summer, survey crews donned waders for amphibian counts and set out traps for slugs and snails.
Michael Lucid, 38, oversees the project for Idaho Fish and Game. He formerly worked in the agency's wolf recovery program but considers the multispecies initiative his dream job.
"It's the excitement of discovery," said Lucid, noting how scarce information is about the region's amphibians and slugs and snails. "We're still describing the biodiversity of the region."
Some aspects of amphibian life are fascinating for their oddity. Western toads breed in large groups, and field crews stumbled across ponds with egg masses the size of cords of firewood. Survey work included looking for the Coeur d'Alene salamander, which has no larval stage. The salamanders are the size of a penny when they hatch, and they grow into finger-length adults with rusty stripes on their backs. They live in wet rock piles and waterfall spray zones.
A slug species thought to be rare turned out to be common. The magnum mantle slug, last documented in Lolo Pass in 1968, was frequently found in surveys.
Why is this kind of information important? There are several reasons, Lucid said.
Fish and Game's charter is to "preserve, protect and perpetuate" Idaho's native species. Having baseline data creates an early warning system, allowing managers to react if a population starts to trend downward. That can keep animals off the federal endangered species list and under state management, Lucid said.
In addition, scientists are interested in how climate change will affect native frogs, toads, salamanders, snails and slugs.