By Sean Graham
|Shannon Hoss. Don't mess with her.|
ALDOT was already starting to back down—due to the new revelation that there were many more than just a handful of endangered salamanders on that hill—and it looked like they might shelve the whole project. We triumphantly continued looking for the last stragglers on the hill, knowing that they were all going to get to go home soon, and that due to the fakery of those shysters we would soon have a most remarkable mark-recapture dataset, bought and paid for by the evil-doers themselves. Like I said, her name is Hoss.
I was rappelling along the hill, scanning for Phaeognathus faces when I heard the unmistakable banshee of sliding tires followed by a series of hollow clunks, combined with the swooshing sound of lots of parting vegetation. It sounded like a large tree had fallen down over near the highway, but the blood in my veins turned cold because I knew exactly what had happened. I looked up, and could see a pair of headlights off in the distance—cutting the dark like searchlights, pointing straight up in the air. We called out to each other, wondering what we should do, but we were dangling from ropes and by the time we got up to the top of the hill we could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. We decided to keep working. Privately, we were scared of what might happen if we showed up to the crash site and locals realized we were the no-good, evil biologists who were so obviously responsible for this travesty.
When we were done for the night the emergency vehicles were still there. On our way back to our car we could see the wreck, illuminated by flood lights. It was upside down at the bottom of a ravine on the other side of the road. To this day I have no idea how the driver managed to slide off the highway so badly. It had rained, and so the road was a little wet, but we never found out whether they had slid off going up or down the hill, nor the details of the accident, other than the fact that everyone had gotten out OK. The car was facing uphill, so if they were heading down the hill the car would have had to have spun completely around. It looked like the jeep from Jurassic Park, after the Tyrannosaur had its way with it and tossed it over the cliff. We got back to our vehicle, and a local was there with reflective clothing and a glow stick, guiding traffic. We talked to him a little bit about the accident, sheepishly trying to avoid conversation about salamanders. He brought it up.
“The road’s unsafe.”
“I don’t think so. Why aren’t there guard rails? Why don’t they warn people? Were they speeding? Were they drinking?”
“They care more about salamanders than people’s lives.”
I tried to make this point, which Atticus Finch and I firmly believe is a good one: There are lots of places that are unsafe in this country, and it’s not up to us to save people’s lives if they want to be stupid. By that logic, we should fill the Grand Canyon all the way to the rim to make it safe for people who would commit suicide by throwing themselves over.
Unaffected, he looked away, repeating, “They care about salamanders more than people’s lives.”
With this, I realized I was not going to be able to convince this man of my point of view, or any point of view, and we got the heck out of there.
Eventually, Shannon called me excitedly one night, boasting that she’d finally captured Captain Pussycat. All told, we found nearly a hundred of the rare Red Hills Salamanders. They all got PIT tags, and since ALDOT wasn’t sure what to do, they delayed the road realignment project indefinitely. One day all the salamanders—the biggest, smallest, pinkest, and most timid Red Hills Salamanders known—every one of them, got to go home. Shannon carefully returned them all to the exact burrow where they were captured.
The flags remained, and an expert on the species now goes down there once a month to scan the burrows with a heavy-duty wand, which can read their individual microchips like the bar code scanner at the grocery store. This particular device can scan through up to a foot of solid rock, so it’s not necessary to see the salamander to know it’s there. The most detailed study of this species ever attempted is now underway.
A year or two later Jim and I accompanied a pair of ALDOT biologists who were scoping out a different pathway for the road. We poked around a slope a hundred meters or so away from the excellent hillside we’d surveyed a few years before, looking for burrows. There were surveyor’s flags along the slope, but these did not indicate salamander burrows, but instead where the new path of the highway would go. It looked like the road would have to take a much wider turn to go the way they wanted it to go now. Jim wasn’t sure if this new, improved project would ever materialize, but ALDOT was footing the bill, so he’d do the surveys.
Interest in taming the road still persists, and as long as it does, the salamanders will never be completely safe. They may need to find some other home, perhaps somewhere other than the hills of south Alabama where they’ve survived for twenty million years. Monroe County Probate Judge Greg Norris was recently interviewed by the Monroeville Journal, and the journal said that Phase II of the project would continue “as soon as the Red Hill Salamander issue can be resolved.”