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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

VENTURA FWO: Recovering the Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander; A Little Amphibian with a Large Fan-base

Region 8, February 6, 2014
Santa Cruz long-toed salamander
Santa Cruz long-toed salamander - Photo Credit: n/a
Biologists survey Prospect Pond for the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander and other sensitive amphibians at the Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge.
Biologists survey Prospect Pond for the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander and other sensitive amphibians at the Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge. - Photo Credit: n/a
The USFWS, Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz and Natural Resource Conservation Service work together to enhance habitats for Santa Cruz long-toed salamander.
The USFWS, Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz and Natural Resource Conservation Service work together to enhance habitats for Santa Cruz long-toed salamander. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Mary Root

When Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who were playing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum croceum) was struggling to survive.

This little amphibian, which measures four to six inches (10 to 15 centimeters) long from snout to tail, was known to occur in just two coastal ponds in Santa Cruz County, one of two coastal counties surrounding California's Monterey Bay. With both ponds facing development and permanent conversion to other urban uses, the salamander's future was uncertain. The species first gained federal protection under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in March 1967, and maintained its endangered status under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which offered better habitat protections for the imperiled species.

The salamander was originally discovered in the 1950s by biologists near an undisturbed ephemeral pond – known as Valencia Lagoon – in Aptos, California. In 1956, the species was found breeding at a second location – Ellicott Pond – just a few miles south. It was not until the 1980s when biologists discovered this small amphibian within 15 minutes of the famous concert site in Monterey. In Monterey County, the species lives in a few isolated habitats near the Elkhorn Slough. Since the 1950s, biologists have documented 24 breeding locations between the two coastal counties, greatly improving our understanding of the species range. Though still extremely limited in population size, the species is more secure than just being limited to the two original ponds sites.

Fortunately for this unique creature, residents of Santa Cruz County are extremely supportive of its recovery. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), with support from a diverse group of partners, including federal, state, and local agencies, academia, and non-profit organizations, has helped safeguard the species from extinction and protect habitat throughout its range. In those early days, the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System assisted the California Department of Fish and Game with efforts to protect the species. Ellicott Pond became a state reserve in 1973, and two years later, the surrounding uplands became part of the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System. Establishment of Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge complimented and extended the benefits of the State's permanent conservation area by protecting some of the surrounding oak woodland, grassland, and chaparral habitats where the salamander spends the majority of its life.

Since it was established, Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) has grown to include over 315 acres (127 hectares) and directly supports two of the 24 known breeding locations of the salamander. The Refuge is one of only a few National Wildlife Refuges in the nation established for the conservation of an endangered species. Since its establishment, the Service listed three other species—the California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), and robust spineflower (Chorizanthe robusta), for which the Refuge also provides important habitat.

In the last five years, with support from partners, the Service has made significant strides in improving native habitat for the salamander on both private and public lands, and is actively pursuing efforts to link habitats across roads and major highways in the area to better connect breeding sites. The Seascape Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) – one of the first incidental take permits issued by the Service in the Golden State – has helped protect over 100 additional acres (40 ha), improve habitat at priority breeding sites, and create new wetlands that will better support healthy Santa Cruz long-toad salamander populations. These are all efforts necessary to recover the species.

"In the early 1990s, we didn't know if this species would make it, especially given all the threats and impacts at the time and the extremely limited areas that were protected from development," says Ray Bransfield, a senior biologist of the Service's Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, who worked on this early HCP. "Today, I'm inspired by all the work that has been accomplished since then, and to see our conservation efforts continue with our younger biologists, who are actively tackling those remaining conservation challenges with enthusiasm and a passion for finding solutions. It's great to see everyone working together and applying their skills and resources to achieve more."

Partnerships between federal and state agencies and non-profit organizations have made the successes achieved over the last 40 years possible. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Coastal Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board, CalTrans, the Bureau of Land Management, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Trust for Public Lands, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County have all assisted the Service in recovering this rare salamander.

Building on each success, partners of the recovery effort have seen habitat once slated for development gain permanent protection, and are now working to enhance and improve habitat for the salamander across these lands.

"It's gratifying to see how our partnership has generated real results for the long-toed salamander," says Brendan Moriarty, project manager of the Trust for Public Lands.

With new generations of biologists and citizens supporting the species' recovery, the Service's long-standing partnerships continue to grow and evolve. Collectively, the Service and its partners are standing on the shoulders of those from years prior, as efforts progress to make recovery more than just a written plan. Biologists are hopeful that, with continued support, the salamander will join the list of species that have been fully recovered and removed from federal protection.

"The partnership between government agencies, non-profit organizations and local, concerned biologists and citizens has been instrumental in the progress that has been made towards recovery," says Diane Kodama, manager of the Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge. "It's thanks to this combined force that we have been able to hit the ground running with restoration projects, and habitat and salamander protection efforts throughout the years. And every time a new partner is added, the momentum continues to build."

Since the days of the Monterey Pop Festival, a diverse group of individuals have come together with the common goal of keeping the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander from disappearing. Without them, this relict coastal species, isolated from its more wide-spread inland relative thousands of years ago, may not exist today. While there is still a great deal of work to be done, much has been accomplished in the past 40 years to prevent this species' extinction. Biologists are hopeful this success will inspire the next generation of partners to continue the work necessary to ensure that long-toed salamanders remain an important part of the ecosystem in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties.

Mary Root, the Assistant Field Supervisor of Conservation Partnerships in the Service's Venturea Field Office, can be reached at mary_root@fws.gov or 805-644-1766, ext. 233.

Contact Info: Pam Bierce, 916-414-6542, pamela_bierce@fws.gov