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Old 15th October 2009   #1
Wes von Papineäu
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Default VT Press: Biologists, company work together to save mole salamander

NEWS & ADVANCE (Lynchburg, Vermont) 12 October 09 Biologists, company work together to save wetlands, mole salamander (Jill Nance)
There’s an eerie silence at the edge of the quarry, where barren rock meets the forest’s end.
About 20 feet back, under a canopy of willow oaks and red maples, lies the breeding ground of one of Virginia’s rarest amphibians: the mole salamander.
In 15 to 20 years, as the Boxley Materials Company mines rock for sidewalks and roads, the quarry edges in Nelson County will extend into the forest, swallowing the wetlands where the salamanders reproduce.
Destroying the wetlands doesn’t sit well with leaders at Boxley, a Roanoke-based company whose site in Piney River is one of 15 locations in the state with reproducing populations of mole salamanders.
“Being environmentally friendly is one of our visions. It’s part of what drives us as a business,” said Donald Barricks, superintendent of the Piney River location.
Nor does it sit well with a pair of scientists: Mike Hayslett, a conservation biologist from Sweet Briar College, and Tom Biebighauser, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
The mole salamander is designated a “species of special concern,” according to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Though it’s not endangered, it could become so because of population decline or loss of habitat.
In September 2007, the biologists joined forces with the industrial company to build a new wetland outside the range of quarry expansion.
Boxley contributed thousands of dollars worth of equipment and manpower, while Hayslett and Biebighauser provided scientific expertise.
Two years later, the man-made wetland is teeming with life, and more importantly, it has been accepted by the mole salamander as a place to breed.
“It wasn’t a shock, but it was still such a pleasant surprise,” said Hayslett, who likes to refer to the mole salamanders simply as “the moles,” not to be confused with their furry namesakes.
“The moles have accepted this, they’ve reproduced, and we got our first generation within six, seven months of construction.”
During a tour of the wetlands last week, Hayslett tromped through the murky waters in knee-high rubber boots. To the untrained eye, the vernal pools look like little more than a glorified puddle, a breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
That was the first impression of Sweet Briar sophomore Becky Bonney, who knew virtually nothing about the pools before taking a job with Hayslett as a field biology assistant. She soon learned there are more to the pools than mosquitoes and algae.
“They looked like swamps to me,” Bonney said. “Mike taught me about the diversity of life in it, and how significant they are for our environment and ecosystem. After that I was hooked.”
Hayslett calls vernal pools an “underdog” ecosystem.
“They are poorly appreciated because they are small and they disappear,” he said.
“If a pond or wetland went dry, you might think less of it. That it was nature’s intent comes as a surprise to many people.”
The wetlands tend to fall through the cracks of legal protection, Hayslett said, threatening the future of the plants and animals that rely on them.
Ironically, it’s the wet/dry cycle that makes the pools so unique. The yearly shift between aquatic and terrestrial gives them a double dose of biological diversity as compared to static ecosystems.
With the first man-made wetland a success, Hayslett is spearheading phase two of the project. He completed another wetland this fall, near a patch of woods by Boxley’s office, and plans to introduce salamander eggs to its water this winter.
Phase two poses new challenges.
Salamanders are picky about where they will breed. When they emerge from underground burrows once a year, they head back to the ponds where they were born to look for a mate.
The first man-made wetland was close enough to natural wetlands that the salamanders colonized it.
“It’s like putting a new housing community in an area that’s already densely populated,” said Hayslett. “The salamanders will seize on the opportunity for a new habitat.”
For the most recent wetland, which is about a mile away from the natural pools, Hayslett will have to artificially introduce salamander eggs into its waters. Salamanders won’t naturally make the trek there because it’s too far and dangerous.
The stakes are high. Out of 100 eggs, maybe one will survive to adulthood, Hayslett said.
“It’s one thing to move eggs. You haven’t established a population in a new spot until you see tadpoles successfully leaving the pond,” he said.
Next spring, if nature allows it, Hayslett will see the first batch of tadpoles.
Biologists, company work together to save wetlands, mole salamander | Lynchburg News Advance

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