Thursday, January 30, 2014

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

Part IV: Local Pork and Atticus Finch 

Make sure to first read Part III, and III

The largest and the smallest (possibly) Red Hills
Salamanders ever discovered.

   We started learning all kinds of interesting little tidbits about Red Hills Salamanders, many of which were not previously known. That is one of the great things about being involved in the study of such a unique and recently discovered animal: almost everything we were learning was new to science. We soon had one of the best population estimates for this species, and we knew with good certainty the size, age, and sex distribution of the population. We found the world’s largest Red Hills Salamander. By uncanny luck, this was the first one I ever caught, and the one I described in the beginning of this story. We found perhaps also the smallest. This tiny, hatchling-sized Phaeognathus was only about an inch and a half long, but he had his face sticking out of a burrow just like an adult. We had to tenderly lure him out to catch him. Interestingly, at that size, the body proportions of Red Hills Salamanders are much more like ordinary lungless salamanders, and they don’t seem as eel-like as the adults. I also had the pleasure to discover an individual with an aberrant color pattern; a leucistic specimen lacking the pigment melanin, which made her appear completely pink. 

    After a few weeks we also discovered a deeply troubling pattern: the recipient site contained hardly any burrows, and the site to be destroyed by the unneeded road diversion was stuffed with salamanders. At first we didn’t know how many of the burrows were occupied. Soon it became clear that nearly every single burrow was occupied. There were probably a couple of hundred salamanders there. Even the part of the slope covered with kudzu was packed with Red Hills Salamanders. At first the project didn’t seem so heartless, since we were only going to be moving a few salamanders off a hill overrun by kudzu to a nice ravine right next door. But then we discovered this was one of the finest localities for the species yet known.

The cute little juvenile Red Hills Salamander has body
proportions  similar to other typical salamanders.
    We discussed this new revelation one night after we’d captured and bagged another batch of salamanders. They were lying in the back seat in a cooler, each of them housed in their own portable burrow—a PVC pipe—the stacks of pipes like an Alabama salamander trailer park of sorts. We would do some more hunting the next morning and then return them to the live animal collection at Auburn, where they were set up individually in critter carriers. They were all doing quite well. Amphibians can be a nightmare to keep alive in captivity, and species often do quite well for weeks before inexplicably liquefying with no warning or previous symptoms. The Red Hills Salamanders were doing great, feasting on crickets, and we had only lost a couple in captivity. We were getting a little antsy though, and we wanted to either return them to their home burrows or to the recipient site. We didn’t want to keep them in captivity until they all died. We talked about this on the road between the study site and our hotel in Monroeville, the inspiration for the setting of the book and film To Kill a Mockingbird. As we spoke, our voices became drowned out by a big booming tractor trailer. The truck groaned loudly and geared down, and started passing us. Our little truck lurched and shook as the big beast stormed past. It was loaded down with freshly cut pines.

    Up the road a ways we saw it turn off to a big pulp mill, one of those mills that stinks the whole area up with an unnatural, chemical-urine smell, like a tentacled alien from another galaxy farted in your face. There was still plenty of logging going on here in the Red Hills.

    The next week we went back down and Shannon shared more alarming news. She had a meeting with an official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the entity charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act—an ALDOT biologist, Jim Godwin, and some other players involved in the road taming project. As they spoke, it became clear to her that nobody seemed to care that this was after all a very robust population they intended to move. And, she learned some very interesting gossip about this road project from one of the contacts. The rumor was that a local politician recommended this road realignment under very dubious auspices, as one might imagine. It turned out that—as anyone with even a little common sense could have judged—the road was not particularly dangerous, and that the local pulp mill had lobbied this pork-hungry politician to straighten out the road so that their trucks could haul a little faster. Nobody had suggested putting up guard rails, or posting a highway patrolman there to enforce the speed limit, because nobody really expected anybody to honor speed limit. They wanted to be able to continue to speed, and the real reason for the road relocation was to shave a few minutes off the transport time of logging trucks, which of course were one of the reasons the Red Hills Salamander was endangered in the fifth place.

    Dumbfounded, she pressed the contact for more information. This politician had actually gotten himself into a small scale environmental fight here in the hills of south Alabama, a sort of Spotted Owl war in miniature. But he wasn’t fighting a bunch of smelly hippies, or grungy, tree-spiking eco-terrorists, or some slick, firebombing cell of the Environmental Liberation Front. He was at war with a local elementary school class. Having caught wind of the sliminess of the politician’s approach, a teacher had her students send letters to their congressman, and a microcosmic south Alabama endangered species poop storm broke out. As the biologists on the project, we found ourselves tangled in this same poopy snare. The controversy came complete with idiotic misstatements of truth—otherwise known as lies—and gross exaggerations. People around town were demonizing the salamanders, and saying that the environmentalists cared more about some slimy, stupid purple salamander than they did the safety of motorists. These sentiments echoed perfectly the opinions of the loggers who went up against the Spotted Owl, who insisted the federal government cared more about owls than people. Nobody seemed to care that the road was in fact harmless to all but those who chose to flagrantly break the local speed limit.

Photo from Wikimedia.
    We discussed these issues self-righteously on our way down to the Red Hills one night, jabbering endlessly and swearing monstrously, cursing that no-good dirty politician and his no-good logging company cronies straight to the fiery gates of the underworld. We were extremely certain of the righteousness of our side, and scoffed at the stupidity of the other side, and of their greed and the hypocrisy of their devious ways. We needed only Atticus Finch on our side—or at least Gregory Peck—to be more certain that we were right and that we—and especially the salamanders—were victims of a great injustice and ugly prejudice. Then we would have known for sure that we that we would tragically lose this fight.

Check back tomorrow for the epic conclusion!

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