When Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who were playing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, just down the road the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum croceum) was struggling to survive. This little amphibian, which measures four to six inches long from snout to tail, was known to exist 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 maintains its endangered status under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
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 pop concert site in Monterey.
Since the 1950s, biologists have documented more than 20 breeding locations scattered within the two coastal counties. 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 50 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 Wildlife to protect the species. Ellicott Pond became a state reserve in 1973, and two years later, the surrounding uplands became part of the refuge system. Establishment of Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) complemented 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.
"With the establishment of [Ellicott Slough NWR], the other piece of the puzzle fit into place, as protection of both the pond and the uplands is essential to the survival of the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander," says refuge manager Diane Kodama. "This dependence on both habitats also makes the salamander a unique representative of the local watershed. We know that, if the salamander is thriving at a site, we have achieved good water quality and healthy oak woodlands, benefiting not only the salamander, but also everyone living within the watershed."
Since it was established, Ellicott Slough NWR has grown to include more than 250 acres (101 hectares), including three of the salamander’s known breeding locations. It also provides a safe haven against surrounding urban and agricultural uses for three other species the Service later listed as endangered or threatened—the California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), and robust spineflower (Chorizanthe robusta).
In 1997, the Seascape Uplands Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) detailed a conservation strategy that resulted in the permanent protection of 147 acres (59 ha) of breeding and upland habitat for the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander. The HCP also resulted in the construction of two additional breeding ponds for the species within the Seascape Uplands Preserve. Contributing further to species conservation in this area, more than 60 additional acres (24 ha) adjacent to the Seascape Uplands Preserve was permanently protected in 2009 through assistance from federal and state partners.
The implementation of a second HCP in 2007 led to the permanent conservation of an additional 36 acres (15 ha) of vital habitat for the species. In Santa Cruz County, more than 650 acres (142 ha) of breeding and upland habitat has been permanently protected with the help of local, state, and federal partners. In the last five years, with support of these 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 habitat across roads and major highways in order to reconnect severed dispersal corridors.
"The Santa Cruz long-toed salamander was up against significant threats in the 1960s, and at that time, we didn't know whether or not the species could completely blink out," says Steve Henry, field supervisor of the Service's Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. "So much progress has been made since then. We've been able to preserve precious coastal lands, which has not only helped the salamander move closer to recovery, but has also helped an entire suite of species dependent on this ecosystem for survival."
Without partnerships, successes achieved over the last 50 years would not have been possible. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Coastal Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Board, California Department of Transportation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Federal Highway Administration, Trust for Public Lands, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, County of Santa Cruz, and the Resource Conservation Districts of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties have all played important roles in recovering this rare salamander.
Building on each success, partners 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.
In 2015, biologists conducted a robust pitfall trap study at Ellicott Slough NWR to better understand the spatial distribution of the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander and California tiger salamander in upland habitats. This information is critical in understanding the effects of habitat alteration throughout the range of both species. It also complements ongoing efforts to better understand optimum locations for pond creation sites, with the ultimate goal of connecting and expanding salamander populations.
With new generations of biologists and citizens supporting the species' recovery, the Service's long-standing partnerships continue to grow and evolve.
It goes without question that private landowners too can play an important role in the conservation of endangered species on their properties. In 2015, the Service worked with a private landowner adjacent to Ellicott Slough NWR to remove excess organic material, degraded plastic liner, and invasive vegetation from a former agricultural pond on their property. Today, both the Santa Cruz long-toed and California tiger salamander have been documented using the restored pond to breed.
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 Santa Cruz long-toed salamander will join the list of species that have fully recovered and no longer require 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 Kodama. "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 widespread 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 50 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 long-toed salamanders persist in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
Editor’s note: This article provides updates to an article originally published in the Winter 2014 edition of the Endangered Species Bulletin. Contributors include Mary Root, Chad Mitcham, Diane Kodama, Ashley Spratt.