Chileno Valley brigade will ferry newts this winter

07/31/2019

On a misty night last December in Chileno Valley, Sally Gale and her husband, Mike, were on their way to dinner at a friend’s house when she noticed the newts. They were the same critters she had seen crossing the road for the past 15 years.

“I had this sinking feeling because, I thought, these guys are going to be in trouble,” she said.

On their drive home, Ms. Gale got out of the car and walked the half-mile stretch where the amphibians cross to their breeding lake. She picked up five living newts and 45 dead ones, crushed by the tires of passing vehicles, and carried them to their destination.

“I touched each and every one,” she said. “The mangled bodies. The red, twisted, squashed bodies.”

Afterwards, she said, “That is it. I am going to do something about this.”

Last week, at a meeting at her ranch house, Ms. Gale formed the Chileno Valley newt brigade: a band of volunteer scientists, environmentalists and locals dedicated to making sure California newts can cross Chileno Valley Road safely, from the hills  where they live, to Laguna Lake, where they breed. 

Present were representatives from Point Blue, the Marin Audubon Society, and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, and several people with doctorates in scientific fields.

“The least costly and the most doable [solution] is for volunteers to actually move the newts across the road,” said Gail Seymour, a retired environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Ms. Seymour had read about amphibian crossing projects elsewhere before attending Ms. Gale’s gathering. In Oakland, a road in Tilden Park has been closed every winter since 1989 while newts migrate. In New York’s Hudson Valley, hundreds of volunteers have been annually ferrying amphibians across the road for over a decade. And in Cotati, tunnels were built for endangered tiger salamanders that migrate across Stony Point Road to a breeding pond—a project with varied success.

In Chileno Valley, volunteers concluded that manual assistance during the peak crossing season makes the most sense this year, but that more permanent solutions may be possible in the future. 

Ms. Gale said that in previous years she observed one large evening crossing in early winter, when the weather was wet but gentle, followed by more sporadic crossings throughout the season.

She hopes that at least 20 volunteers will come to the remote stretch of road when she alerts them of the first major crossing this year. The brigade’s members who have backgrounds in restoration projects plan to tap into those networks for volunteers, too. 

Todd Steiner, of the Olema-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, gave a presentation last Monday to the newt brigade on the life cycle of the California newt. 

Females lay a few dozen eggs in water that hatch into aquatic larvae. After several months, depending on temperatures, food sources and rainfall, the newts metamorphize and disperse upland. After roughly three years, the newts, now amorous, return to the waters in which they were born to reproduce. 

They have few predators, because their skin is toxic, and can live for more than 20 years.

The brigade will focus on the adults crossing the road because the juveniles have a higher mortality rate and don’t necessarily cross as a group. Saving adults that have already lived for three years is likely the best way to maintain a stable population, according to Lisette Arellano, the restoration program manager for One Tam.

Since the brigade doesn’t know exactly when the newts will cross, neighbor James McEwen is planning to set up a weather station so they can predict future migrations. In order to gather data, handlers will also photograph and measure some specimens.

After the discussion at Ms. Gale’s home, the brigade scouted the area where the newts cross to discuss logistics and road safety.

“After the first season we are going to know a lot more,” she said. “So don’t feel bad if we’re not 100 percent successful.” Even if they save just one newt, the effort will be worthwhile.

 

Volunteers interested in joining the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade can contact Sally Gale at (707) 765.6664 or sallylgale@gmail.com.