How do salamanders cross the road? They don’t. Unless they respond to an innovative plan to build a boardwalk over an old logging road at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia.
The Cheat Mountain salamander, a federally listed threatened amphibian, is a signature species at the refuge. It is endemic to West Virginia and exists in only five counties. Its habitat is high-elevation red spruce forest. The salamanders lay their eggs on the moist, cool ground below the trees. They forage on the trees at night but are usually found under nearby rocks and boulders. The area traversed by a single salamander in its lifetime is only about one meter square – and that does not involve walking across a trail or road. They are sensitive to habitat fragmentation, moisture, heat and light.
The refuge’s comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) says “research related to the salamander has shown that logging roads and heavily traveled hiking trails can serve as barriers to Cheat Mountain salamander movement and therefore can reduce genetic dispersal.” Although cross-country skiers are one of the largest recreational groups at the Canaan Valley Refuge, some trails have been closed to protect the salamander.
Now refuge biologist Dawn Washington plans to replace one particular trail segment with a 50-foot boardwalk bridge for the skiers and create salamander-friendly habitat underneath. The surface under the boardwalk will be covered with rocks and fallen spruce logs to create a habitat hospitable to Cheat Mountain salamanders.
“The boardwalk bridge will provide shade, and the rocks will create the surface the salamanders are used to,” says Washington. “If we build it, will they come? We don’t know. This particular recovery strategy has not been tried before with this salamander.”
Thomas Pauley, an amphibian expert at Marshall University, believes the boardwalk bridge is a novel idea worth exploring, and he is expected to be an adviser on the project. The Friends of the 500th – so named because Canaan Valley was the 500th national wildlife refuge established – also is on board. The refuge Friends organization already has approved $3,000 for the project, and it has a $5,000 grant request before the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Volunteers and Youth Conservation Corps members are expected to build the boardwalk this summer.
Friends president Casey Rucker, who has characterized Cheat Mountain salamanders as “notorious homebodies generally staying within a few feet of their residence for their entire lives,” says monitoring the flagstones under the bridge for salamanders will be an ongoing – and exciting – part of the project.
“The bridge might be a way to keep skiing and the salamander and find the balance between public use and wildlife,” Washington says.
Rucker expects the project to strengthen ties between the Friends and the White Grass Ski Touring Center and its patrons. “The more people in our community that we involve with our activities, the more strongly they support Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge,” Rucker says.
Most important, he says, “if we discover Cheat Mountain salamanders under our boardwalk, it would be the first demonstration of the effectiveness of
this conservation tool, and its use could be expanded to protect this species further. The project would also serve
to raise awareness of the Cheat Mountain salamander as one of the jewels of Canaan Valley National Wildlife
Karen Leggett is a writer-editor in the Refuge System Branch of Communications.