Recovering the Santa Cruz Long-Toed Salamander: A Little Amphibian with a Large Fan-Base

By Root, Mary | Endangered Species Bulletin, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Recovering the Santa Cruz Long-Toed Salamander: A Little Amphibian with a Large Fan-Base


Root, Mary, Endangered Species Bulletin


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When Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who were playing at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, the Santa Cruz long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum croceum) was struggling to survive. This little amphibian, which measures four to six inches (10 to 15 centimeters) long from snout to tail, was known to occur in just two coastal ponds in Santa Cruz County, one of two coastal counties surrounding California's Monterey Bay. With both ponds facing development and permanent conversion to other urban uses, the salamander's future was uncertain. The species first gained federal protection under the Endangered Species Preservation Act in March 1967, and maintained its endangered status under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which offered better habitat protections for the imperiled species.

The salamander was originally discovered in the 1950s by biologists near an undisturbed ephemeral pond--known as Valencia Lagoon--in Aptos, California. In 1956, the species was found breeding at a second location--Ellicott Pond--just a few miles south. It was not until the 1980s when biologists discovered this small amphibian within 15 minutes of the famous concert site in Monterey. In Monterey County, the species lives in a few isolated habitats near the Elkhorn Slough. Since the 1950s, biologists have documented 24 breeding locations between the two coastal counties, greatly improving our understanding of the species range. Though still extremely limited in population size, the species is more secure than just being limited to the two original ponds sites.

Fortunately for this unique creature, residents of Santa Cruz County are extremely supportive of its recovery. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), with support from a diverse group of partners, including federal, state, and local agencies, academia, and non-profit organizations, has helped safeguard the species from extinction and protect habitat throughout its range. In those early days, the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System assisted the California Department of Fish and Game with efforts to protect the species. Ellicott Pond became a state reserve in 1973, and two years later, the surrounding uplands became part of the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System. Establishment of Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge complimented and extended the benefits of the State's permanent conservation area by protecting some of the surrounding oak woodland, grassland, and chaparral habitats where the salamander spends the majority of its life.

Since it was established, Ellicott Slough National Wildlife Refuge (Refuge) has grown to include over 315 acres (127 hectares) and directly supports two of the 24 known breeding locations of the salamander. The Refuge is one of only a few National Wildlife Refuges in the nation established for the conservation of an endangered species. Since its establishment, the Service listed three other species--the California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), and robust spineflower (Chorizanthe robusta), for which the Refuge also provides important habitat.

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In the last five years, with support from partners, the Service has made significant strides in improving native habitat for the salamander on both private and public lands, and is actively pursuing efforts to link habitats across roads and major highways in the area to better connect breeding sites. The Seascape Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP)--one of the first incidental take permits issued by the Service in the Golden State--has helped protect over 100 additional acres (40 ha), improve habitat at priority breeding sites, and create new wetlands that will better support healthy Santa Cruz long- toad salamander populations. These are all efforts necessary to recover the species.

"In the early 1990s, we didn't know if this species would make it, especially given all the threats and impacts at the time and the extremely limited areas that were protected from development," says Ray Bransfield, a senior biologist of the Service's Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office, who worked on this early HCP. …

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