Sunday, January 13, 2019

On the Border with Black Bears

 By Sean Graham       

      The sun was going down so I hustled back up the trail to avoid hiking out at night. Walls of yellowish-pink igneous rock stood vertical on either side of the trail, thickets of shrubby vegetation lined the arroyo leading up a couple of miles to Casa Grande, the picturesque mesa of Big Bend National Park. I passed an older man heading back up the trail, and he said something like, “You’re really pushing it!” I hiked this trail every weekend, doing standardized surveys, and people always wanted to know what I was doing holding a notebook, and many mistook me for a park ranger. After the hike down, I was free to put on the afterburners and “push it” on the return hike. I rounded a corner with a blind spot behind it, like entering a room in a strange house.
            A loud grunting stopped me in my tracks. I looked up from the trail and saw a small bear standing in the middle of the trail, his nose snorting. The hair on his back went up, he wheeled, and I watched him haul his cute little ass across the arroyo. The whole thing lasted no longer than a second and startled me witless. I continued up the trail, watching the little bear scramble halfway up a brushy hill. 
            Then I saw mama.
            A large female bear was down in the arroyo fifty feet away. She was sniffing the air, looking agitated. I walked backwards the other way, up the trail, talking softly to her. 
            “It’s ok mama. You’re a good mama bear. I didn’t do anything. I’m walking away.” I walked up the trail and was about to turn around and resume my earlier pace and get the hell out of there when I thought about the heavy-set man behind me. I just spooked a baby bear and managed to separate it from its mother. If the man walked right into mama, things could get bad. I stood next to a large boulder and waited. I watched her continue searching for her youngster, sniffing the air. Looking at me, sniffing my way. The baby climbed up to the ridgeline. The man appeared and rounded the corner. I got his attention, and waved him over, silently. 
            “Look.”
            “Oh goodness a bear!”
            I explained what happened and we admired the bears for a minute. Then I shook his hand and walked back to my car. 
            I’m a big fan of bears, and not just because they’re cute and charismatic, and not because of all of their ecological benefits. It’s because they’re potentially dangerous. It’s because of their swagger. Having to change your plans because of the presence of another, much larger animal that can kill you is one of the great things about places like Big Bend. It wouldn’t be the same without them.
            By the 1940s and the establishment of Big Bend National Park in Texas, black bears were largely extinct in the state. Bears, along with wolves, were poisoned, trapped, and shot out; the same old story for most of our large, potentially dangerous mammalian carnivores.
            Then in 1985, a bear was seen in the park, and sightings increased year by year, so that by the time I first visited Big Bend ten years later, they were reestablished. The origin of these bears was out across miles of desert flats, across the winding, grey-watered Rio Grande, out past the desert cliffs, up in the mountains of Mexico. 
Bears, like many mammals, have an instinctual tendency to leave their parent’s territory when they approach maturity. This is encouraged by the mother, who, after lovingly nurturing their young for months, essentially kick them out of the house. Juvenile mammals wander until they find vacant habitat. I saw a young bear wandering in the desert—in the bare, low creosote out near Terlingua, Texas. Out looking for greener pastures. 
This repopulation is happening all over the country due to species protection and the declining popularity of hunting: jaguars, mountain lions, wolverines, fishers, and wolves are all rebuilding their numbers and juveniles are dispersing, reoccupied territory where they have not been seen in decades.
Progress reestablishing many wildlife populations relies on natural dispersal and connectivity between the U.S. and Mexico. A wall erected as a political ploy will block their way.

                                                                      ****

 We arrived at the headquarters of the CEMEX El Carmen office in northern Mexico after a 12 hour drive. CEMEX is the largest cement corporation in the world, and offsets its environmental impacts with proactive conservation programs. The El Carmen Project is its crown jewel: the company purchased, restored, and protects a 208,381 hectare preserve across the river from Big Bend. Together with adjacent preserves in Mexico and Texas, the region represents one of the largest protected areas in the world. We have the privilege of surveying the preserve for amphibians and reptiles.
We turned in at the bunkhouse. In the middle of the night my colleague Tomas woke us up.
“Guys, it’s a bear!”
Tomas was jealous of all my recent bear sightings. He had never seen one.
Now a large black bear was rummaging through our stuff in the bed of my truck. We had brought all our food indoors, but realized we left out a few granola bars. We opened a window and hissed at it, yelled at it, swore at it.  It dropped from the truck without a sound—remarkably stealthy for such a big animal—and walked away. Ten minutes later, it was back. We shooed it away again, and went out with headlamps to bring in the rest of our stuff. Dogs started barking. The bear didn’t return. 
Tomas had a very unusual first-bear experience. The bears of the Chisos Mountains are remarkably well behaved, and not a single bear-human mishap has occurred since their return in 1985. The park established a network of bear-proof boxes throughout the park, including at remote backcountry sites, and does a great job of educating the public, preventing nuisance bears. 
  We saw several more bears that week, including seven in one afternoon driving across the grassy foothills of the Carmens. We searched an oak canyon, finding small lizards perched on the rocky cliffs, where black-capped vireos—an endangered species in the U.S.—were common and twittered nervously, about one every hundred yards. A big commotion, crashing in the brush, an amorphous black shape in the shadows. A huge fresh turd in the wash where the commotion began. 
We were having good luck, searching canyons by day, driving roads by night, and found many rare snakes, representing new records for Mexico. We tended to celebrate after days like this. And celebrating in Mexico means endless Tecates and copious tequila.
 I was in and out of a swirling, syrupy sleep. An incredible racket woke me. I assumed it was the wind slamming shut the front door. It went on smashing like that for a minute, but I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t know if I could get up. My spinning head came to life, focused on the sound. It was more of a wrenching sound. I thought somebody was screwing around trying to get one of the windows closed. But it went on for another full minute. I was right about to get up and start yelling when I heard Tomas.
“It’s a bear!”
“What the hell?” I called out. My brain wasn’t working right, but now a small dollop of fear dripped into my inebriated delirium.
I stumbled into the kitchen. Tomas was standing there looking at the window near the sink. The sound was incredible. It sounded like a linebacker trying to push a car door open the wrong way. Like the raucous squawking of a pterosaur. Like a piston at an industrial plant. Like an enormous bear trying to tear its way into a house. 
All the windows and doors were reinforced with metal latticework. The bear was attempting to rip open a weak spot to get inside. Tomas started hissing, yelling at the bear. 
It looked like he had everything under control, and I could barely stand up, so I crashed out again. 
The wrenching sound came back 30 minutes later. El Oso Negro had returned. After more shooing and shouting, he finally went away.
Black bears are extremely common in the Carmens, possibly exhibiting higher population densities here than any other place in North America. Bears can be active year-round in the Carmens because of the many kinds of oaks; a good mast of acorns is always coming into season. Given their densities here, it’s obvious how the black bear returned to Texas. 
And more are on the way. 
You may wonder why I would mention a story of marauding bears in Mexico crossing the border into Texas. Isn’t this just more fodder for those who favor a strong border, and a big, beautiful wall? What kind of argument is this? Well, anyone who would use this as an exemplar for border security would only be using senseless fearmongering. The chances of a black bear attacking you are vanishingly small, even when ornery and habituated to humans. Anyone who is more scared of bears than getting into car accidents or getting gunned down by their fellow Americans has clearly succumbed to irrationality. Anyone who doesn’t respect the beauty and courage of these bears, who cross dozens of miles of inhospitable desert to find a better place to live, doesn’t have enough measurable empathy and humanity. The bears enrich our local flora and fauna and contribute to biological productivity. And, there’s the economic incentive: bears consistently top the list of things national park visitors want to see, and the parks are an enormous economic boon for nearby rural towns. Big Bend is a classic example, and the migrant black bears a case in point. 
You might recognize some parallels between the bears and other timely issues. I stand by the metaphor.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Species That Went Extinct in 2018

    Since 2012 I have gathered in one place a list of all the animals that went extinct in the previous year. Click here for the 20172016201520142013, and 2012 editions. I started this series because I didn't know of anybody else summarizing this kind of important information. Interestingly, now I keep getting e-mails from people that found one of my lists and want to know if I know of a website that compiles lists of species that have recently gone extinct. Yes there is; you are reading it.

Let's get into it.

All the animals thought to be European Wildcats (Felis silvestrus) in Scotland appear to have domestic cat genes (due to interbreeding). So, although they still fill the same niche, the pure wild animal (a subspecies) is probably gone.

Photo: Justin Shoemaker
Breeding populations of cougars in the northeastern United States probably blinked out in the first half of the 20th Century, long before the Endangered Species Act even existed. But, this year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service felt confident saying that what we considered the eastern subspecies is extinct, and therefore should be taken off the list of endangered species (the Florida panther is considered a separate subspecies). The eastern subspecies may be gone but who knows, there is limited compelling genetic evidence to say we should break this species up into different subspecies, and western cougars are slowly making their way back east.

It is hard to know when a species is gone or just rare and hard to find. So, scientists sometimes employ statistical analyses that incorporate how often a species used to be found, the last time they were seen, and an assessment of conservation threats to estimate whether they are likely to be extinct now. Alex Bond gave me a heads-up that this year a group of scientists used these methods to conclude that cryptic treehunter (Cichlocolaptes mazarbarnetti), Alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor novaesi, both forest dwellers of Brazil), and poo-uli (Melamprosops phaeosoma, a Hawaiian honeycreeper) are now extinct.

After this blog was posted, John Platt at The Revelator tipped me off about a few notable extinctions that I missed.We knew that Macclear's Rat (Rattus macleari) from Christmas Island went extinct over a century ago. But, a study published this year says we lost a flea at the same time. The Christmas Island Flea was so closely linked to this species of rat, that it could not exist with its host.

John also tipped me off about the Ozark Pyrg, a snail from Arkansas and Missouri. None have been found since 1915 and the US Fish and Wildlife Service said they're probably extinct, so they're not going to get protection under the Endangered Species Act.

There was not a lot of wildlife extinction news this year. That's good news! But it leaves without much to talk about. So, let's highlight some plants.

John Platt writes a eulogy for Adenocarpus faurei, declared extinct after five years of fruitless searches, "this yellow-flowering shrub was native to the Oued Sidi Khaled valleys of northern Algeria, where it lived at altitudes of around 3,600 feet. It was first described scientifically in 1926 — which, coincidentally, was the last time it was ever officially seen."

John also pointed out to me that a similar fate has been experienced by Vepris bali, a rare tree from Cameroon. Scientists describe the species and announce it is probably extinct in the same scientific study.

Goodbye Amaranthus brownii, a Hawaiian herb that was last seen in 1983. This plant took a major hit from introduced grasshoppers, and inbreeding was a problem for the few plants left.


Photo Courtesy: Turtle Survival Alliance.
Things to watch in 2019. I expect caribou are about to vanish from the lower 48. There may only be four Yangtze Giant Softshells (Rafetus swinhoei) left in the world. This year the last male Northern White Rhinoceros (a subspecies) died at age 45; there are two females left: his daughter and granddaughter.
Simply listing the species that went extinct in a given year is surprisingly tricky. Here are my answers to some commonly asked questions.

1. Just because we are always discovering "new" species doesn't mean we are offsetting extinctions somehow. When we discover a new species it is not actually new to Earth, it is just new to us. In other words, a new life form was not just created, we just happened to learn about it. There is a limited pool of species and the total number of species is decreasing. Evolution leads to the creation of new species but not on a time scale that is relevant to this conversation.


2. Human beings are one of the species on Earth. I do not feel that this means that anything and everything we do is natural and therefore okay, even if it means causing species to go extinct. Other species have value and we should act accordingly to keep them around. With great power comes great responsibility.


3. In my list I include species that went extinct in a globally significant region even if the species might still exist somewhere else. I think these local extinctions (called extirpations) are important. You might decide not to include them in your list of extinctions.


4. I include in my list species that went extinct in the wild, even if some individuals may still exist in captivity. See above.


5. It is often impossible to know when a species went biologically extinct. That is, there is often no way of knowing when the last individual of a given species dies. So, I often include in my list species that were declared extinct, this official designation often occurs many years after the last actual death. Again, you may not include them in your list of extinctions, but I do.


6. It is not unusual to "rediscover" a species that we thought was extinct. That is always great news. But, they are usually still critically endangered and often "really" go extinct afterwards.

This post helps fulfill the outreach mission of The Alongside Wildlife Foundation. Want to help us do even more to create and promote science-based solutions to living alongside wildlife in perpetuity? 
Please consider joining our growing network of recurring small donors here.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

From Bird Eggs to Orangutans: in 2018, The Alongside Wildlife Foundation Awarded over $10,000 to Wildlife Conservation Projects Around the World!

Merry Christmas!

As you may know, this year my foundation started a small grants program to support wildlife conservation projects around the world. In June, we funded projects focused on everything from Arkansas dragonflies and Oklahoma ants to Nigerian monkeys and Pakistani wolves. In September, we funded projects ranging from Nepalese leopards to Costa Rican dart frogs. In November, we funded projects helping Montana bears, Namibian aardvarks, and Nepalese Musk Deer, for a few examples.  

Today I wanted to let you know about the last round of projects we funded in 2018. This year alone, our first full year of existence, we awarded over $10,000 to wildlife science and conservation projects around the world. I hope you will consider helping us do even more by signing up as a recurring donor. There is still time to get in your tax-deductible donations for 2018.

Sometimes people tell me they feel silly signing up as a recurring donor for just a (tax-deductible) $1-2 a month and I tell them actually this would be great! If a fraction of my online followers signed up at this level we'd instantly become one of the world's largest wildlife conservation charities.


Jon Johnston of the Nepal Tiger Trust received funds from the foundation to develop a citizen-science monitoring program for tigers in the buffer zones surrounding Chitwan National Park. This project will establish tiger report stations at the entrances/exits of buffer zone areas. Local tiger technicians will host meetings and presentations for the local communities to discuss the citizen science project, tiger conservation, and also hear concerns or suggestions from local people. Living alongside tigers is something that may be difficult to imagine for most people, but it is reality for people living in the communities surrounding Chitwan National Park. Local community-level conservation and monitoring efforts are necessary for this delicate and dangerous, relationship to be maintained while mitigating conflicts, misunderstandings, and negative perceptions. This project will work to elevate local people from victims to stewards of the tiger in their neighboring forests while collecting data that will help develop strategies for human-tiger coexistence on a larger scale. 


Photo Courtesy Tashi R. Ghale/GPN-Nepal.
Marc Filla with Georg-August-University Göttingen received funds to support his research on the ecology of snow leopards in Nepal with a focus on reducing conflict between these big cats and livestock owners. The aim of the project is to identify suitable management and husbandry measures that prevent livestock depredation by snow leopards and retaliatory killing of these large carnivores in Nepal. The results are intended to benefit long-term co-existence between local communities and snow leopards throughout their entire range. Based on the results from the research activities and with the support of the local cooperation partner, Global Primate Network Nepal (Rinzin Phunjok Lama), Marc wants to pinpoint conservation foci to governmental authorities and spreadour knowledge of the effectiveness of various anti-predator measures to local communities. This is intended to benefit both local communities and the threatened snow leopard to foster their long-term co-existence.

Cody Crawford of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History received funds to produce copies of Egghead, a free, public domain educational card game which teaches children 12 and under about the nests and eggs of common North American birds. Curricula and activities accompanying the game use it as a springboard to teach children about animals, ecology, and environmental stewardship. Cody and his colleagues want to make biology as accessible as possible for children from every socioeconomic background.

Thomas Sharp of Wildlife SOS received funds to produce a film that that will provide essential information on how to stay safe in sloth bear country. It will include how to 1) avoid encounters, 2) diffuse encounters that occur, and 3) react to an attack to minimize the chance of death and injury. The film will also contain a conservation message about nature in general and sloth bears in particular. In many parts of India, the sloth bear is feared as much as the tiger or elephant; it is important that the public gain a better understanding of these bears so that they are not merely viewed as a nuisance or threat. In order to reach as many people as possible, they intend to make the film available free, via the internet, and in multiple native languages. Wildlife SOS is already conducting sloth bear safety outreach meetings, and would like to make the film part of this strategy as well.

Larissa Iasiello of Flinders University received funds to expand her project assessing the distribution of Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) and identify their breeding status on a series of islands of the coast of South Australia. Due to rapid declines in some colonies, a thorough review of their breeding distribution and current status is needed to inform appropriate conservation strategies. Gaining more reliable knowledge on the little penguins’ natural history is needed; this project aims to be a piece in this puzzle by collecting data on individual islands that will contribute to our future understanding of little penguin breeding distribution.

Susan Sheward of Orangutan Appeal UK received funds to support Patrol and fire-fighting teams to protect and conserve the Sabangau Forest in Indonesia. The overarching goal of this project is to protect the Sabangau Forest and its inhabitants, such as the critically endangered Bornean Orangutan, from the significant threat of fires, caused predominantly by illegal logging activities. The main objectives of this project are to provide funding to the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) to enable 1) the community patrol team to continue their patrolling, community awareness, restoration and training activities, and 2) the fire-fighting team to continue extinguishing any fires that occur. This project provides a solution for living alongside wildlife in perpetuity, by providing employment opportunities for the local community as members of the patrol and fire-fighting teams that operate in the Sabangau Forest. This reduces the reliance on illegal logging activities, which cause fires and threaten wildlife. The patrol team also communicates with the local people (e.g. school children and illegal loggers) on the impact of illegal logging and fires on wildlife and the environment, which changes people’s opinions, and hence reduces human-wildlife conflicts.

Want to help us do even more to create and promote science-based solutions to living alongside wildlife in perpetuity? Please consider joining our growing network of recurring small donors here.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

California Waters: Salamanders In The Cracks -- Guest Post --

Part I and II.


A young Panamint Rattlesnake (Crotalus stephensi).
At a distance the old mining route unfurls above us like an M.C. Escher painting; all drops and climbs and precariously tilts to the side. There is no ledge and you can imagine sliding off into oblivion. I check the map. The potential salamander habitat Matt had located on Google Earth will require four miles of that, to be followed by at least a mile of steep hiking.

There is a beauty in these mountain roads, not least because you can roll on for hours without seeing another vehicle. At one point Matt and I stopped in the middle of the road for a gorgeous rattlesnake, crouching down on elbows and knees to get the best shot, oblivious to the fact that cars were sanctioned to drive there at fifty-five miles an hour. Other people with cars is an abstract concept for now.

Matt in the Inyos, with Owens Valley and
the Sierra Nevadas in the background.
But the rule of eastern California is that no matter how remote the road you’re on is, the road it leads to is even worse. Matt stops when we get to the mining turnoff. Our target species may be a few miles down.

“This is the road?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know if I’m willing to do that.”

“Haha – no way man.”

So this is herping in the Inyo Mountains. How do you even know whether salamanders are there when it becomes too hard to find them?

Unlikely desert denizens

Much of our three-week expedition to observe California’s rarest species covered familiar ground, providing me an opportunity to note changes to populations and habitat in the intervening period. But I also wanted to check out remote locations that I had never been able to visit. And nothing was higher on my list than getting to herp the Owens Valley and especially the Inyo Mountains that form its eastern border.

The Black Toad (Anaxyrus exsul) is known from
a single spring complex surrounding an alkaline lake
on the north end of the Inyo range. It is common
within its extremely limited habitat.
The Inyos are a high-elevation desert, shielded by the Sierra Nevadas and thus receiving no more than nine inches of rain a year. Isolated from other mountains by the Owens Valley to the west, Saline Valley to the east, Great Basin Desert to the northeast and Mojave Desert to the south, this range has developed a unique herptofaunal assemblage. Several of its residents are found nowhere else on Earth, including the Black Toad, Panamint Alligator Lizard, and Inyo Salamander.

Wait, a salamander?

In defiance of everything you know about amphibians, the dry and desolate Inyo Mountains have a salamander. It is possibly the only surviving desert salamander in the world.

 Though the wash is dry and vegetation on the slopes is sparse,
 those patches of dark green in the distance indicate a spring
pulling together enough water to
support the salamanders.
Salamanders need water. Deserts don’t have much water. Thus salamanders and the desert don’t mix. A casual hike in the Inyos doesn’t suggest that such a dilemma would be resolved here. These mountains are dry. The reptiles are scattered, even the cacti are thin, making their homes with the wide spacing that scarcity of water requires.

But hike far enough in the right direction and you will get to a mountain spring. The spring is created by hundreds of acres of slope which funnel water into a depression. Rain is rare but when it arrives it soaks deep, gravity pulling the moisture through rock and soil to create a persistent trickle in one spot. The varying distances that the water travels to reach this spot spread its arrival over the course of the year, ensuring that the spring flows months beyond the latest rains. Surface water may appear for no more than ten feet, or as much as half a mile.

Tucked away along that trickle in the right crack between the right rocks under the right fern, a species of salamander can be found that knows no other way to live. Only 17 springs, spread out across 20 miles of mountain on the east and west slopes of the Inyos, constitute the entire known range of the Inyo Salamander (Batrachoseps campi).

Matt and I used satellite images to locate many potential salamander springs, but our attempts were often thwarted by dangerous approaches, washed-out roads, and hikes that simply drug on too long in difficult mountain terrain. Outside of a few snakes on the road we didn’t see much herp life on the slopes, possibly in part due to a cold front that limited reptile activity.

But we persisted, and on a few of the hikes we reached beautiful springs, two of which revealed a total of nine salamanders.

An Inyo Salamander on the left and their typical spring-in-the-desert habitat on the right. 
The limited water and vegetation that the salamanders manage to subsist within is remarkable. 
Habitat photo courtesy of Gary Nafis.


Defying the desert, defying California’s ongoing drought. The Inyo Salamander lives on in its wet little niche as it has for hundreds of thousands of years.

While it appears to be living on the edge, the Inyo Salamander may be able to maintain that edge for thousands of years to come. The Inyos are hot and dry, but the salamanders’ shaded microhabitats are fed by cool underground spring water trickling in from mountain slope stretching up to 10,000 feet elevation. Thousands of mining operations that pepper the hillsides may once have been a threat to their survival, but 90% of those claims are now closed and protecting the limited number of occupied salamander sites from further impact is doable. In the forty-five years since the salamanders were first discovered, a few of the original springs have dried, but most remain robust. So long as the water sources are left untouched and wild burros are kept away from the crucial vegetation, the salamanders are probably safe.

In another region of Owens Valley Matt and I found Mt. Lyell Salamanders (Hydromantes platycephalus) 
at the edge of snowmelt streams running off the east side of the Sierra Nevadas. This distantly sourced 
water supports just one salamander species in otherwise dry and inhospitable terrain. Photo courtesy Matt Dagrosa.
Victims of warming

San Joaquin Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis
biseriatus) on the Kern Plateau. 
Excited to have observed what appear to be secure populations of Black Toad, Inyo Salamander, and Mt. Lyell Salamander, Matt and I headed south and west across the valley to scout areas where climate change has taken a deeper hit.

Small creeks in the oak, pine and fir forests of the semiarid Kern Plateau are less unlikely-looking salamander habitat than the desert springs of the Inyo or the rocky canyons of the eastern Sierra Nevada. But parts of this range are just as dry as the other two habitats we had surveyed, and many of its scant creeks only run seasonally. Once again, a single salamander species has turned this inhospitable terrain into a home.

Unfortunately, Kern Plateau Salamander (Batrachoseps robustus) populations may not be as stable as the other two dry-habitat salamander species we’d located. As drought and rising temperatures reduce the seasonal persistence of moisture in southern California, some previously occupied sites on the eastern and southern portions of this salamander’s range have not produced in some time.

A Longnose Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei) crawls along
 the valley’s edge at at night while a Red Coachwhip
(Masticophis flagellum piceus) makes
its appearance during the day.
Matt and I first investigated an east-flowing creek on the southwestern edge of Owens Valley in what should have been prime salamander habitat. Desert reptiles such as the Red Coachwhip, Desert Horned Lizard, and Long-nosed Leopard Lizard were prevalent along the route.

But salamanders were nowhere to be found.

As we proceeded westward and climbed higher into the mountains, the operative word was dry. It is clear that drought conditions have done a number here. The largest creeks flowed only in their central channels, the small annual creeks which often provide the best robustus habitat lay parched to the bone. The highest-elevation reaches of the plateau were closed off to vehicular traffic, so we began to worry whether we would see any salamanders at all.

At over 6,500 feet elevation I finally spot a heavy log sitting in a moist grassy hollow in the center of an otherwise dry ravine. Beneath that log was a solitary Kern Plateau Salamander.

A combination of shade, a slight depression in the soil, and a heavy log allowed the retention of 
just enough moisture for this Kern Plateau Salamander to remain near the surface in a dry May landscape.
It would be the only one we saw.

We took care to leave her perfect little niche exactly how we had found it, and prayed that she would continue to find moisture until the next rain. We were excited and proud to have found such a salamander during the drought, especially after learning that many of our peers had failed to see one that season. But the uniqueness of the find highlights the struggle they may be facing in many of their historic haunts.

The waterfall on the left suggests the presence
of salamanders near the surface. Thick green
vegetation on the right indicates water below the surface...
and salamanders below as well?.
“May” is an essential word. Are the salamanders actually struggling, or are just we struggling to find them? With creatures as secretive as these, how can you tell whether they are becoming rarer or are simply retreating to more difficult-to-survey cracks in the rocky landscapes that make their home? Even when a Inyo spring dries on the surface its salamanders can persist in underground waterways. Perhaps when a Kern Plateau stream dries out the salamanders dig deep enough to find the point at which the soil stays moist, waiting to emerge again in the wet years.

Or perhaps, as climate change heats and dries their landscape past anything they’ve seen in thousands of years, they are beginning to disappear from much of their historic range.
The relatively long-limbed San Gabriel
 Mountains Slender Salamander.

Either way, the Kern Plateau Salamander is in no danger of extinction. While much of the low-lying and east-facing portions of its habitat are drying out, it can be found as high as 9,200 feet and parts of its range include west-facing slopes which draw thirty inches of rain a year. But its total range is small, and if drought conditions and warming persist, many locations which once held the species will no longer support any salamanders at all. 

Other salamanders in California are becoming similarly difficult to find, especially among the Batrachoseps genus. The San Gabriel Mountains Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps gabrieli) of the warm and dry Transverse Ranges has shown up less frequently in many of its known locales in recent years. The Lesser Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps minor) and San Simeon Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps incognitus) of the San Luis Obispo coast have become harder to locate and may be failing to adjust to a gradual drying of the region. The Kern Canyon Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps simatus) is now rarely found in open terrain, being seen only in its more sheltered seeps. And the Desert Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps major aridus), previously known from just two desert canyons in the Santa Rosa Mountains, has not been seen since the 1990s and may be extinct.

 Sierra Nevada Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzii platensis)
 from the wetter region just to the west of the Kern Plateau.
Some of these changes may have been accelerated by anthropomorphic global warming and man’s habitat alterations, but to a degree they are also natural processes related to the cyclic nature of climate and a 12,000-year-long transition in California’s precipitation patterns. As the southern half of the state dries, certain species which rely on moisture are going to be forced into smaller and smaller microhabitats, and some of those microhabitats may blip out. Other than retaining and breeding a few examples of the species for posterity, it may not be a process we can stop.

Of course, there are other situations for which we cannot declare ourselves so uncertain, or so innocent.


The remnant

A mule deer stopped to watch me as I crossed the road. I moved off and descended an untrailed ravine that dropped, dropped, dropped into a lower creekbed, picking my way through brush and treefall. On one fallen tree a hawk had picked clean a squirrel’s carcass and left the skin inside-out, hooked onto a branch.

For the first time in our trip I was in a place that looked like typical salamander habitat. The mountain was green, the trees were thick, and the ground was wet. A late afternoon storm had rolled in, blocking the sun and dropping temperatures into the low 40s. For this search I hiked alone. The issue of exposure crossed my mind as I headed a long ways off the beaten path.

You could write out every living person who has seen a Relictual Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps relictus) and might not get to the end of a page. Originally discovered among a series of springs and streams in the Lower Kern River Canyon in 1968, none of the original populations have been seen since 1971. Highway construction along the canyon appears to have altered local hydrology in a manner that the species could not survive.

A decade later, Robert Hansen discovered a new population of Relictual Slender Salamanders near an isolated mountaintop meadow some distance away. Unfortunately, the discovery of that new population coincided with the building of a logging road. Once again the hydrology changed, and the new population disappeared as quickly as the previous ones had.

For 20 years the species was not seen again, until a remnant of that mountaintop population was found to be hanging on in the same meadow. As I suggested earlier, being unable to find a thing doesn’t mean it is not there! A second population was discovered in a nearby creekbed, and just last year surveyors located a third population. Those three populations persist to this day. The total occupied habitat of the species might fit within a football stadium, and it is all contained on one mountain.

One of several Yellow-blotched Ensatina
(Ensatina eschscholtzii croceater) found in the forest. 
On first impression there appears to be a lot of habitat here. Indeed, other salamanders like the Yellow-Blotched Ensatina reside throughout these mountains. But the Relictual Slender Salamander is unique among slender salamanders in that it is semiaquatic, and thus it rarely strays far from water. This otherwise fossorial salamander even possesses a dorsally flattened tail which may help propel it across the creek. As I navigated the steep hillsides, occasionally casting concerned glances skyward to see if the darkening clouds were bringing a storm, I realized that the waterlogged edge habitat preferred by relictus comprised only a small proportion of the landscape before me.

Relictual Slender Salamanders
lurking at the creek's edge.
 So it was with some excitement that I saw a promising spot where water met land in just the right way...and indeed there were two slender salamanders there. They persist. I pray they may persist for many years to come.

I’ve asked myself what it means to hold out hope for a salamander reduced to three tiny populations. It is true that whether the salamander survives or not, few humans will ever see it. But whether or not many of us notice, what does it say that a species has been diminished to this state? The Black Toad, Inyo Salamander, and Mt. Lyell Salamander persist despite limited habitat in part because their localities are so inhospitable and undesirable to humans. The Relictual Slender Salamander was just a little bit too close to places we wanted to change and so it teeters, reduced to an ecological island that could be devastated by a few degrees of global warming or a shift in precipitation. Should it take an utterly remote habitat niche for any interesting species to remain unimperiled from human development?

Who is responsible for bringing the situation back from the brink? Well, ask who builds the highways, and the logging roads, and the cities and tourist traps that such roads and logging operations support. The honest answer is that to some degree nearly all of us have played a part.

Is there another way, one in which we reduce our own footprint so that other species can maintain theirs? Do we care enough to look for the options and commit to them?



References:

Thomson, Robert C. California Amphibian and Reptile Species of Special Concern. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.

Nafis, Gary. California Herps: A guide to the reptiles and amphibians of California. http://www.californiaherps.com/

I want to thank Ben Witzke and Robert Hansen for insights into these salamanders, and Shanti Mathias for editing and suggestions on this article as well as the previous ones.