Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Part II of Do Endangered Species Really Halt Progress? A Case Like You've Never Heard

Part II: The Untamable Road

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 Alabama Red Hills are loose enough and limey enough to erode into a soft, pliable soil that these salamanders can burrow into. The soil of the Chattahoochee Ravines was too hard, too compact. Although it wouldn’t surprise me too much if some intrepid herpetologist eventually finds a Red Hills Salamander in Georgia, I gave up searching there. 

    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.

    Though logging still persists on small, privately owned plots many of the big logging operations in the area do not attempt to harvest trees on the steep slopes where the salamanders are due to agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Instead, they virtually farm pine trees—cutting them down on a regular rotation like so many corn stalks—on the flat ridges and plains near the ravines, but leave the beech magnolia forests alone. The big timber companies for the most part deserve a pat on the back for their restraint and assistance with the preservation of the salamander. They have agreed to leave many of the slope forests alone indefinitely, and in fact it was a timber company biologist who discovered the population outside of its known range in Wilcox County. In the usual political climate associated with endangered species, one might expect loggers to keep such a discovery a secret or immediately clear cut the area, but this company alerted biologists and immediately moved to preserve the new site. Taking the long view, things are looking good for this salamander.

    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.
    Our lab at Auburn University was an excellent group of true, down and dirty field biologists, and we had just acquired an old-school professional named Jim Godwin. Godwin resembles a malnourished Confederate general: a spry, sinewy old codger with enough children to shame a 19th century Mormon. He is kind of a free-lance biologist and does surveys for federal or state agencies for a living, and he was now drawing a paycheck through Auburn. So, we sort of joined forces, with Jim getting projects and having at his disposal an endless supply of enthusiastic graduate students ready to work at a moment’s notice. Over the summer, he had a few students rappel down some slopes to count and flag Red Hills Salamander burrows and characterize the microhabitats around them. As autumn approached, I got to go down for the first time myself. We would be catching the salamanders, and I was very excited about that. I had not even seen the legendary amphibian, and I was not only going to be able to see them, but we were actually permitted to harass the sin out of them. To top it all off, I was actually getting paid to go.

    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
story of the Snail Darter, a tiny fish useless to any but the most shameless fisherman, which brought the mighty Tennessee Valley Authority to its knees, and ended (temporarily) their noble quest to tame yet another menacing river with yet another hydroelectric dam. Many know about that blasted Spotted Owl, whose plight momentarily caused a moratorium on the clear cutting of the last remaining old growth temperate rainforests on public land—your land—in the Pacific Northwest.

    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.

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