Tag Archives: road

Making a difference in the salamander movement


What might look like a fallen twig in the road is actually a migrating spotted salamander.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

As we slide into our rain gear, the spotted salamanders are already sliding down the hill, making their way toward the wetland across the road.  Driving here was like living in a game of Frogger, only we were the car.  Switching roles now, we park the car and begin escorting as many of these slippery critters across the road as possible.  What had looked like fallen twigs from the car are actually slow-moving salamanders getting crushed by oncoming traffic.  I am joining New York Field Office biologist, Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, on a volunteer mission to document and help migrating woodland amphibians.


Spotted salamander that emerged from the forest floor on a rainy night.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Salamanders represent one of the largest sources of biomass of all vertebrates in the forest landscape.  They also can help us by eating pest insects, like mosquitoes that breed in the same vernal pools as them.  Just beneath the forest floor are countless hibernating frogs and salamanders, awaiting the first heavy rain after a spring thaw.

Typically, late March and early April are when they resurface from their winter homes, but with unseasonably warm weather this year, some woodland amphibians came out early.  By early March, spring peepers and spotted salamanders are emerging from the earth, half-awake and on auto pilot to make it to the wetland and breed.  This migration has been happening for tens of thousands of years in the forests of New York State, except one thing is different now: we have placed roads in the middle of their route.


A spotted salamander waits at the roadside, as if pondering whether or not to cross.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

It’s a double-edged sword because roads have made it much easier to see and document this impressive migration, but now there is a spike in fatality.  Driven by instinct, these amphibians all travel in one direction, while cars are streaming from both.  Some are lucky enough to escape the 4 wheels overhead, but for a vast majority, luck fails.


Spotted salamander makes his way toward the headlights of a car, attempting to cross over to the wetland on the other side.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

That’s where we come in, acting as a free lift service for migrating frogs and salamanders.  One salamander pops his head up over the roadside, another is already making a slow dash in the middle of the road, and then a peeper springs into the action!  We quickly grab those in sight and safely transport them to the other side of the road.  I can’t help but think about how many slip past the two of us before we can rescue them.  I can only imagine what passing cars are thinking as they see our bright orange vests on the side of the road at 10:00 pm in the wind and rain.


A spotted salamander pops its head over the edge of the road after coming down the hill from the woods.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

There is a small crew of volunteers in Central New York who maintain this late night tradition when the warm spring rains fall.  This is part of a larger effort for the NYSDEC’s Amphibian Migrations and Road Crossings Project, which so far has helped more than 8,500 amphibians cross New York roads safely.  Others are helping make a difference across the Northeast as well.  In Massachusetts, salamander tunnels have been installed to allow safe crossing.  Some areas have even begun to periodically close roads to allow the hundreds, if not thousands of amphibians to make it to their breeding pools without the risk.


Lending a helping hand to make sure this salamander safely crosses the road.  Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

With spring still a few weeks away and sporadic temperature changes ahead, there could be more nights like this. If you know of a breeding location or want to lend a helping hand in this effort for the Northeast, you can find a local volunteer opportunity near you. When you’re driving near a wetland, be sure to use extra caution on rainy nights, and be aware there may be volunteers and amphibians out and about.

Pa. mussels help restore streams in Ill., Ohio and WV

We love freshwater mussels so much that we extended our month-long series to tell you about work to restore and protect freshwater mussels and their homes in Pennsylvania. Today you’re hearing from Lora Zimmerman, the assistant supervisor of Contaminants and Conservation Planning Assistance in our Pennsylvania office. This series highlights the importance of freshwater mussels to the Northeast landscape and the concerted efforts underway to ensure their future in our waters.

Pennsylvania is known for a lot of things—spectacular trout fishing, abundant energy resources, intensely rivaled hockey teams—but one of the lesser known treasures of Pennsylvania is its native freshwater mussels.

Species almost lost elsewhere are known from the Allegheny River and French Creek in western Pennsylvania, and they are the envy of several neighboring states where the mussels have either been lost or populations are too small to survive without assistance. For example, although it remains in only five percent of its historical range, the northern riffleshell continues to have thriving populations in Pennsylvania. Likewise, the clubshell mussel also has stronghold populations in the Commonwealth.

Clubshell mussel. Credit: USFWS

Clubshell mussel. Credit: USFWS

On a related, and potentially challenging note, a lot of Pennsylvania’s highway infrastructure is aging and in need of upgrade or replacement. So what happens when a bridge spanning a massive mussel bed with hundreds of thousands of endangered individuals needs to be replaced? This question had the Fish and Wildlife Service and partner agencies scratching their heads. The solution, as it turns out, may help move clubshell and northern riffleshell towards recovery.

After working with project planners and engineers to minimize potential adverse effects, the Service and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation determined that it was not feasible to replace the Hunter Station Bridge in Forest County, Pennsylvania, and simultaneously avoid all impacts to listed species in the project area. We started brainstorming ways to mitigate, or make up, for those impacts.

A clean river, the Allegheny bottom is rocky with stands of eelgrass. Credit: Kristen Lundh/USFWS

A clean river, the Allegheny bottom is rocky with stands of eelgrass. Credit: Kristen Lundh/USFWS

An analysis of the Allegheny populations of northern riffleshell and clubshell indicated that removal of some of the individuals living under the bridge would not result in a loss of population viability, so we put out a call to our mussel conservation partners.

As part of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s formal recovery plan for northern riffleshell and clubshell, biologists have worked to reestablish healthy populations of both species within the historical ranges of the species. Doing so required addressing historical water quality issues in the Vermilion and Salt Fork River in Illinois; Big Darby Creek, Ohio; and Elk Creek, West Virginia, that are responsible for the decline or extirpation of northern riffleshell from their waters.

In addition, successful pilot studies in previous years with relocated mussels indicate that the cleanup efforts have been successful. As such, the Service found these locations ideal for transplanting some of Allegheny’s endangered mussels that may otherwise be lost due to the bridge replacement.

On August 23 this year, staff from the Columbus Zoo Freshwater Mussel Conservation and Research Center, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Natural History Survey, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania Boat and Fish Commission and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources assisted with collecting and relocating mussels from the Hunter Station bridge.

Divers sort mussels collected in the Allegheny River under the Hunter Station bridge. Credit: Jim Carroll/PennDOT

Divers sort mussels collected in the Allegheny River under the Hunter Station bridge. Credit: Jim Carroll/PennDOT

All told, the collection and relocation effort moved more than a thousand mussels from Hunter Station to their new homes in Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia. Although future monitoring is needed to determine the long term success of the translocation, reestablishing northern riffleshell in these states would go a long way towards accomplishing recovery goals for the species as a whole.

Translocation is not the solution for every endangered species conflict, but this project demonstrates that in some situations, it can be a successful tool for conservation and recovery.

And who knows, once the word gets out that that western Pennsylvania hosts such a unique resource, folks in Pittsburgh will demand that the Penguins be renamed something more locally appropriate (not to mention intimidating), like … the Clubshells … and then again, maybe they won’t.


Clubs, riffles and rays of New York

This post is part of a series running all month on freshwater mussels, highlighting their importance to the Northeast landscape and the concerted efforts underway to ensure their future in our waters.

The Allegheny River basin holds globally significant populations of four species of mussels federally listed as endangered. They are northern riffleshell (Epioblasma torulosa rangiana), clubshell (Pleurobema clava), rayed bean (Villosa fabalis) and snuffbox (Epioblasma triquetra).

Surveys in the upper Allegheny River basin in New York and Pennsylvania have found populations of these species in the past, but portions of the mainstem Allegheny River and its tributaries remain un-surveyed or have incomplete surveys — an obstacle to truly achieving recovery.

Diver looking for riffleshell and clubshell mussels. Credit: Jeremy Tiemann Il/Natural History Survey

Diver looking for riffleshell and clubshell mussels. Credit: Jeremy Tiemann Il/Natural History Survey

The Service’s New York Field Office has recovery responsibility for at least two of the mussel species; the clubshell and rayed bean. Clubshell prefers clean, loose sand and gravel found in small rivers and streams (riffles). The rayed bean also prefers this habitat but is found among aquatic vegetation. 

In the upper Allegheny basin, mussel populations are threatened by poor water quality and loss of habitat. Activities that threaten mussels and their habitat include mining and channelization of streams, erosion of streambanks, pollutants, roads, pipelines and water withdrawals. 

Conservation measures can minimize impacts to mussels and sustainable land use practices can improve mussel habitat. Examples include maintaining stream buffers and minimizing erosion and sedimentation rates by using erosion control methods during construction.  

Endangered clubshell mussel. Credit: Craig Stihler/USFWS

Endangered clubshell mussel. Credit: Craig Stihler/USFWS

Recovery actions include conducting presence/absence surveys to assess abundance and identifying and  prioritizing certain streams for restoration and protection.  The field office is partnering with the Western Pennsylvania Land Conservancy to conduct surveys in streams that provide suitable habitat for these species. 

The surveys will be conducted in 2013. Stay tuned!

Submitted by Sandra Doran in the Service’s New York Field Office.