Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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

Part III: Captain Pussycat

Make sure to first read Part I and II

    If you were under the impression that endangered species have some sort of privileged status in the eyes of the federal government, you have obviously never heard the story of the folks in Alma, Georgia, who killed a federally protected Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) and wound up on the front page of the local newspaper holding the evidence.  The headline said: "That’s a big snake!" 

    You know what happened to them? The law—the Endangered Species Act is a federal law—states that direct killing of endangered species is punishable by a stiff fine. Folks have been fined $100,000 for killing Bald Eagles. For the locals in Alma, Georgia, there was no action. No fine. Nothing. These people are probably still not even aware that they broke a federal law. The state herpetologist John Jensen begged his superiors to at least issue a public service announcement, or force the newspaper to print a retraction. Or to at least use this incident as an educational opportunity. Instead: nothing.

The Alabama Red-bellied Turtle.
    Nor have you heard of the plight of the Alabama Red-bellied Turtle (Pseudemys alabamensis). This federally endangered species is found only in the vicinity of Mobile Bay. That’s it. And, for decades, dozens of these turtles have been killed every year attempting to cross U.S. Hwy 90 near Mobile. These turtles are aquatic, so most of the individuals struck by cars are nesting females and hatchlings: the future of a slow growing, slow maturing, low-output species. Do you know what happened when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service learned that this was happening? Did they swoop down in sleek Blackhawk helicopters and shut down the highway, especially considering it is a superfluous route into Mobile that runs parallel to a perfectly good interstate highway? No. Instead, nothing happened. David Nelson, a professor at University of South Alabama, documented the road kills for ten years—ten years!—before anybody lifted a finger. Finally, the Department of Transportation installed some exclusion fences along the causeway. This was most likely in response to some bad press in the Mobile Register. The fences have reduced the number of turtles killed every year, but the carnage continues. Since 2001, 717 have been pulverized.

    Unfortunately, these are the more typical stories involving endangered species, which rarely get media play. Thousands of endangered species die or get moved around every year, acres of their habitat are developed, and nobody hears a thing. And it became pretty clear that the research I was involved with was yet another one of these sad cases. Made all the more sad by how typical it was.

    We arrived at the relocation site, and that’s when we truly began to wonder what we were doing. We crossed a small swampy creek floodplain, and to the south appeared the hill. The road wound up—gradually, and once—to the top. When we reached the top we pulled off a small logging road and I kept looking forward, as if we were supposed to keep going. As if the road ahead must certainly hook off somewhere up ahead at some vicious angle. I was looking for the dangerous curve. I never found one. There is a curve in the road, it is true, but all the Alabama Department of Transportation felt was needed to alert motorists to this menacing bend was a series of arrows pointing the direction of the curve, and a yellow 35 mph sign at the top of the hill heading down. No guard rail. No special warning. No flashing lights. And this was entirely understandable. The curve could be taken in most weather conditions at 55 mph with absolutely no problem. I’ve seen tough curves, even in Alabama, but this was not one of them. There is a tough curve at the top of a ridge in Georgia, where presumably a fatality occurred. Somebody must have literally drove off this mountain, because now there is a massive 25 mph sign flanked by a set of flashing lights alerting you of the danger, a humungous sign pointing the direction of the curve, and a retaining barricade that looks like it could catch an Abrams tank on the downward slope. This is a serious curve, and serious people did something about it. The curve in south Alabama is not serious.

    Still, Shannon reassured me that the goals of the project were not entirely clear, even to her, nor was it probable that the ALDOT would go through with taming of this unruly stretch of state highway after all. What we were involved in was merely a feasibility study. Mostly we were going to survey a nearby slope to determine the feasibility of introducing a couple of homeless salamanders into another area, and to see the feasibility of their survival on an adjacent slope. We weren’t exactly transporting wolves from Canada to Yellowstone. There was a good chance the project wouldn’t happen, but if it did, the road tamers wanted to be compliant, because not moving the salamanders would lead to what in endangered species parlance is known euphemistically as “take”. To “take” an endangered species means to kill it. Surprisingly, you can get a permit to do this, and you then only have to pay a modest fine for each hapless critter you “take”. Conceivably, a rich and very evil person could pay to “take” an endangered species out, and there is nothing you or I could do about it.

    Jim saw this project as a good opportunity to study the salamanders on ALDOT’s dime; we would be the first researchers to conduct a mark-recapture study on this species, and if it became necessary, the first to study the effects of translocation. And so we hit the slopes, with barbless fishhooks, and little cricket cages dangling from our belts. The hill was so steep that we had to wear harnesses and repel down a hundred feet or so from ropes anchored to sturdy trees. We started catching the salamanders at the removal site, each of us perfecting our own unique fishing style. Since 1961, fishing has become the Phaeognathus-catching technique of choice, but I soon became frustrated with it. Half the time the salamander would snatch the cricket right off the hook, and you wouldn’t even get a peak at the salamander inside the burrow. Soon I was trying to entice salamanders out of their burrow, allowing them to snap the cricket off the hook before my very eyes. They then quickly disappeared back down their holes.

A Red Hills Salamander perched at its burrow opening.
Photo courtesy Brad Wilson.
    Watching them hunt the cricket was fascinating and comical, and made me wonder how these magnificently stupid animals ever evolved in the first place. They would slowly and timidly poke from their burrows, eagerly approaching the cricket, blinking. Many would then quickly jerk back into their holes, unprovoked, and never show their faces again for the rest of the night. Others would stupidly maw at the cricket, lunging with their mouths closed, bonking the cricket with their eyes. Then, quite suddenly, at the very threshold of my patience, the salamander would deftly shoot its tongue out at least an inch and snatch the cricket right off the hook. A second later it was gone, back into the hill. I felt like reviving the spade technique.

    Throughout the night there were intermittent shouts of swearwords and frustrated screams that would drift along that hill in south Alabama, eventually to blend with the shimmering cadence of katydids. Punctuated occasionally with triumphant hoots when a salamander was brought in.

    I was told there was no way you could capture the salamanders with your bare hands and so I stuck with the fishing routine for several nights. After a while I could no longer stand it; I was having far too many salamanders get seven inches out of their burrow, only to playfully tongue my crickets. I decided to give it a try. I’m pretty sure the people who swore it was impossible to catch Phaeognathus out of their burrows had simply never captured any kind of salamander with their bare hands. I led a salamander out of its burrow with a cricket, first its head, then its neck, past its shoulders, and, amazingly, nearly halfway down its torso. It still clung to the walls of its burrow with its back legs and tail, ready to retract if needed. I grabbed it by the shoulders, and found that the warning had been legitimate—the salamander was slick and sucked itself back into the hole like somebody slurping up a noodle. But I maintained my grip, and after a panicked moment I was able to tug the sucker out. Soon the hill started sprouting dozens of numbered surveyor’s flags, which marked the location of both unoccupied and occupied burrows. As we continued to work, the number of burrows known to be occupied steadily grew.

    We were getting pretty good at catching them and soon I had my technique down pat. My method was to simply twizzle the burrow mouth with a small stick—no cricket necessary—and then wait. Usually a salamander would soon appear, and I’d lead him out a few inches and then snatch his butt right out of his hole. It was tremendous fun. Soon we started noticing that the occupants of certain burrows had distinct personalities. Recalcitrant salamanders became the stuff of legends, conjuring stories comparable to those involving great game fish or man-eating tigers: if you tried to catch them a few times and failed, they became extremely wary and nearly impossible to catch. One in particular, whose home was under flag number 47, occupied a small burrow along the base of the hill in an area of bare slope. He only came out occasionally, and when he was out, he almost never went after any bait, and when he did, he only offered a single attempt before disappearing for weeks. Shannon gave this salamander a moniker that can only be printed here as “Captain Pussycat.”

Check back tomorrow for part IV.

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