May 8, 2008 - 09:44 — Rick Searle
Yesterday, as a buddy and I were leaving Waterton Lakes townsite, we came over the hill near the Visitor Information Centre to discover a couple of people down on their knees on the shoulder of the road, studying something in a plastic bag. Just a little further on, we encountered two other people doing the same thing. Curiosity got the better of me, so I asked my buddy to turn our car around and drive back so I could find out what was going on. Pulling up alongside the first two people, I grabbed my camera, walked over and introduced myself, before asking what they were up to. One of them, a young man crouched behind a black fabric metre-high barricade that ran the length of the curve in the road, told me that they were trapping long-toed salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum), which are listed as a species of Special Concern under Canada's Species At Risk Act (SARA). The salamanders, he explained, make a dangerous trek every spring, coming down from the hills, crossing the road, and then working their way down to Linnet Lake where they breed. In the fall, the reverse journey is made just in time for winter hibernation. With increasing visitation in these shoulder seasons, vehicle-caused mortality had climbed to an estimated 44% of the population. Hence the barrier which diverted the little creatures into traps where they are bagged in water and then carefully transported across the highway. A very labour-intensive process. He also said that his name was Matt Longmore and that he was assisting Katie Pagnucco, a masters student from University of Alberta, with this project. So my buddy and I walked up the road to have a chat with her. Like Matt, Katie had several salamanders bagged and waiting for the airlift. She told us that Parks Canada was soon going to be building a tunnel under the road, constructed especially for these amphibians. The key factor was to ensure that they stayed moist the whole time. The agency had also taken a number of other measures to reduce vehicle-caused mortality associated with the road, and she encouraged me to speak with Cyndi Smith, Conservation Bioogist at the park. After taking a few photos of Katie at work, we drove down the road to the warden station to talk with Cyndi. She recounted how Parks Canada built a sidewalk to provide visitors with safe passage between the Visitor Centre and Linnet Lake, but the right-angled walls of the sidewalk were unsurmountable and trapped the salamanders on the road, resulting in massive losses. As soon as this was realized, park staff and concerned citizens rallied during the cold nights to capture and carry the creatures across. The sidewalk design was soon changed to a sloped curb to permit the salamanders to continue their journey. The amphibian tunnels will be the first in Canada's National Parks and the second only location in Canada. The prime objective of the tunnels is to improve the ecological integrity of Waterton Lakes National Park, but a secondary objective is to learn more about the dispersal of long-toed salamanders. This knowledge will aid in the protection of critical habitat. The tunnels should be in place within the next month or so. The next time you are in Waterton watch for them. A series of small fences meant to divert the salamanders to the tunnels will indicate where to look for them. The tunnels, which are 600mm wide by 520mmm high, will have air slots in the top to allow air, moisture and light to enter, thus making them suitable for the salamanders. Good work Katie, Matt, Cyndi and Parks Canada!