At first glance, you might think the Jefferson salamander escaped a tropical country to the forests of Ontario. In fact, the amphibian is native to the province — but unfortunately to its development-heavy southern regions, where it faces constant threats.
“What they need are connected areas of forest and wetland, and unfortunately we've lost some of that habitat or it's been divided up by things like roads and towns,” says Mhairi McFarlane, conservation science manager with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
The Jefferson salamander is classified as endangered in Ontario. Roads and highways bisect its habitat along the Niagara Escarpment, separating its breeding grounds from the forests where it spends most of its time.
“Jeffersons are in big trouble primarily because they have a small distribution in Ontario, and because that distribution overlaps with human activity,” says Joe Crowley, species-at-risk biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.
The salamander normally lives under rotting logs or leaf litter, and it favours moist environments with lots of bugs to eat. To find what it needs to survive, the it travels widely. That brings it into contact — and conflict — with humans.
“For us it's all about protecting and managing connected areas of native plant-dominated landscape,” McFarlane says. “Jefferson salamanders require quite big areas of forest with big diversity of trees and good diversity of wildflowers and other native plants.”
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Salamanders breed early in the season in vernal pools, temporary ponds of water that form during the spring thaw and can be as cold as 4 C. They all tend to move together, migrating during the same short time period.
“So if they happen to be moving during a time there's a lot of traffic on the road, you can end up with a significant portion of the population getting wiped out,” Crowley says.
This has led at least two towns in Ontario to close roads to help the salamander cross safely during breeding season. In Kitchener, about 700 metres of Stauffer Drive is closed for seven weeks a year to help save the salamanders. Similarly, Burlington closes a one-kilometre stretch of King Road during the late winter.
The recovery of the species depends on reducing road mortality and connecting the salamander’s regular habitat with the breeding areas.
“I think recovery is likely feasible but it's going to require an ongoing commitment to protect the species’ habitat in the face of ongoing development,” Crowley says. He highlighted protections under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, Planning Act, and Greenbelt Plan: “All of these are powerful tools for making sure we can protect the species’ habitat, but it does still require buy-in from the local public and municipalities.”
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