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Helping Cheat Mountain Salamanders in West Virginia's Canaan Valley
Photo Credit: Kent Mason
The Cheat Mountain salamander (Plethodon netting), a threatened species that is unique to West Virginia, may have a shot at recovery, thanks to conservation efforts that are underway at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
One of two vertebrates native only to the Mountain State, Cheat Mountain salamanders are found only on Cheat Mountain and nearby mountaintops with mixed spruce stands. One of the primary threats to the species is the loss and degradation of its high elevation red spruce and northern hardwood forest habitat. The salamander was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1989 after much of the red spruce forest stands that this species depends on was lost to logging and forest fire.
"Originally, the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge was covered in red spruce and balsam fir," says Marquette Crockett, a wildlife biologist at the refuge. "After most of the conifer forest was logged, the organic soils burned. This changed the entire ecosystem, and mostly hardwoods came back."
The four-inch-long salamanders are primarily active on humid evenings, when they search for insects to eat. Despite living for approximately 20 years, the salamanders rarely venture farther than their territories, which are around 48 square feet. Perhaps the biggest threat to Cheat Mountain salamanders is competition from redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), which can tolerate the drier and warmer conditions found in hardwood forests.
Efforts are underway to preserve the cool and damp conditions these salamanders depend on. The Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is working with the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) to connect pockets of spruce forest.
"We plant spruce trees to enlarge and connect existing stands of spruce in hopes that the habitat will be more conducive for salamander populations to expand," says Crockett.
In 2013, CASRI planted more than 53,000 seedlings—8,000 on the refuge alone. Habitat management also includes cutting of hardwood trees that compete with red spruce. One example is the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), which now has a disease that causes it to sprout thickly and outcompete spruce seedlings.
These conservation measures are paying off. Since 2001, Service biologists have monitored at least three salamander populations on the refuge. According to these surveying efforts, populations of these rare salamanders have remained stable over the last 10 years. Biologists survey transects in the rocky red spruce habitat, while counting salamanders, weighing and measuring them, and determining if they are juveniles or adults. They also collect tissue samples for a DNA analysis to determine the genetic differences among the populations of Cheat Mountain salamanders.
The salamander joins other regionally rare wildlife making their homes in mountain spruce forests, from the recently recovered West Virginia northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus), to the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus), to the saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). With efforts underway to conserve the high-elevation spruce habitat and expand salamander population monitoring, things are looking up for the amphibian.
"This has been really encouraging work," says Crockett. "So far, our refuge populations have remained stable and we even found one new population no one knew was there."
Thomas Barnes is a communication intern in the Service's Northeast Regional Office in Hadley, Massachusetts.
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