Sunday, February 9, 2014

Salamander Bucket Brigade

Why do salamanders cross the road? Sex, of course. On the first rainy nights of the winter season, California Tiger Salamanders leave their dens (often old gopher tunnels), and meander to nearby ponds where breeding occurs. Near my home here in Sonoma County California, a population of this federally listed endangered specie is faced with a mortal challenge common to many animals. A busy paved road was established between the fields where they live, and the vernal pools where they breed. Luckily for them, there is a community of conservationists who go to great lengths to help the nocturnal amphibians cross the street.
California tiger salamander crossing a busy Sonoma County road in the near Cotati, California
Yesterday evening, while flash flood warnings were in effect and most folks were at home watching the Sochi Olympic Games, a group of concerned citizens donned reflective vests and walked the shoulders of Stoney Point Road looking for salamanders. Carrying buckets, flashlights, and GPS devices, the searchers pick up specimens, document the location, then carry them across the road to continue on their journey without being ground into the asphalt. Normally the peak of this activity would have happened several months ago, but with the drought of 2013/14, the salamanders were on standby until the rain finally arrived and the ponds filled with water. Data collected is used to establish information about population density that may be used to help protect the US Fish and Wildlife Service's 72,000 acre Sonoma County salamander protection zone, and to help de-list the specie from the endangered list once populations increase.
Students from Sonoma State University search for endangered salamanders in pouring rain along Stony Point Road near Cotati, California. 
Protection of the habitat in which the Sonoma County population of Tiger Salamanders lives has been a hot button topic between developers, agriculture, and environmentalists for years. Habitat protection has been an expensive source of litigation that has stalled the development of, among other things, a major casino, a local rock quarry, and expansion of the Sonoma County Airport.
Students from Sonoma State University document California Tiger Salamanders in pouring rain. 
In 2011 a series of low fences was erected at the Stony Point Road site to guide the eight inch long speckled amphibians into specially built tunnels which allow them to safely cross back and forth under the road. The fence and tunnel system seems to be working pretty well, yet because there are still an good number of tiger salamanders killed each rainy night, volunteers show up to safeguard the crossing. (Click here for more info about the tunnels.)
California Tiger Salamander in bucket prior to release.
According to a USFWS proposal: "In Sonoma County, the California tiger salamander is imperiled by a variety of factors including habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation due to urban development, hybridization with non-native salamanders, inadequate regulatory mechanisms, disease, and pesticide drift."  

California Tiger Salamander being released into the wild.

If you'd like learn more about this topic, here are a few links:

-Jerry Dodrill