By Sean Graham
Make sure to first read Part I
I will now relieve the crushing intensity of suspense that I have created with the set up of this story, and admit that I found no Red Hills Salamanders in Georgia. The beginning of the story took place in south Alabama, where it rightfully should have. After searching the Georgia Red Hills for Phaeognathus I came away with the following opinion: the general habitat of the Red Hills salamander is not unique. You can find nice forests with beeches, magnolias, diverse plants, and steep slopes in other areas of the Gulf Coast. You can find Hatchetigbee and Tallahatta limestones across the Chattahoochee in Georgia, and across the state line in Mississippi. However, what appears to be unique to the Alabama Red Hills, and to the home of Phaeognathus in particular, is the way these limestones erode.
|This is what Red Hills Salamander |
burrows look like. I found this burrow in
Georgia, outside of their known range.
It got my hopes up.
The point of all this being that the Red Hills Salamander is monumentally unique, and is only found in a few counties in south Alabama. Genetic studies show it is on a lonely branch of the salamander family tree, off by itself. It must be an ancient species that has been hanging on in the Red Hills for millions of years. When it became clear just how distinctive this beast is, and how narrowly distributed it is, and how its forest home could easily be destroyed by the rampant logging operations common throughout Alabama, biologists lead by Robert Mount petitioned for its listing under U.S. Endangered Species Act and succeeded. This salamander is now a peculiar example of an endangered species that is almost guaranteed to survive; where it occurs it can be very common, and they thrive as long as their slope forests remain intact.
|Much of the Red Hills is no longer cloaked|
in luxurious mesic slope forest or diverse
Longleaf Pine forest. Instead, thousands of
acres of Slash Pine are grown in neat rows
in pine plantations.
So it was with some surprise that I found myself fishing for Phaeognathus in the fall of 2007, part of quite possibly the most bass ackward, stupid, unnecessary conservation project of all time. The complete insanity of this project was revealed to me and the other biologists involved only in piecemeal, and only after some time did we truly come to understand its ludicrousness. At first we heard only small details about the project. Only later did we come to understand its true scale.
|Jim Godwin and I on a swamp adventure.|
Shannon Hoss had recently graduated with her Master’s degree from our lab, and so she was heading the project for Jim until she left for graduate school in California. Shannon is a very intelligent and thoughtful woman, but her last name is wholly appropriate. She is opinionated, almost three feet tall, swears as much as I do, and will not let an issue rest, ever, until she has spoken her peace. In short, she’s wonderful. It was a three hour drive down to the Red Hills from Auburn, and along the way we talked a little bit about the project. She was under the impression that we were going to capture all of the salamanders along a hillside, and then bring them back to Auburn, set them up in captivity, where eventually they would receive small microchips—called PIT tags—surgically. After they healed, we would set them all loose on an adjacent hillside.
“Why?” I asked, a question that would become more perplexing and difficult to answer in the coming weeks.
She explained that a very dangerous road lurked near the habitat, and they were going to straighten it out, and in so doing they would destroy the hillside. The salamanders had to go.
This may come to some readers as quite a surprise given the number of well-publicized stories about endangered species causing all manner of developments to come to a screeching halt. Everybody knows that endangered species get in the way of development all the time. What most people don’t know is that this really isn’t true. You never hear about how development eliminates the habitat of endangered species all the time. Instead you’ll hear about the few well publicized cases when it becomes controversial. Many are familiar with the
With these stories of tree huggers and their pesky endangered species in mind, you might wonder how in the world it came to pass that biologists would be undertaking a forced experimental removal and relocation of a federally endangered species to make a curved state highway straight. We too started to wonder about this, and the more we learned, the more we wondered.
Check back tomorrow for Part III.