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Make way for salamanders; amphibian tunnel sited under road in Monkton

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Posted on August 24, 2015 |
By Gaen Murphree



Monkton amphibian crossing lead photo_2654.jpg
MONKTON CONSERVATION COMMISSION chair Chris Slesar eyes the rich amphibian habitat in Huizenga Swamp last Thursday afternoon. He was in the area to check out the site where workers this week will begin to build a tunnel under Vergennes-Monkton Road that will let amphibians migrate to and from the swamp. Independent photo/Gaen Murphree

MONKTON — How do you get slow-moving salamanders across a busy road without becoming roadkill? Ten years of grassroots effort will finally come to fruition this week when work begins on two wildlife culverts that will link migrating salamanders, newts, frogs and toads with critical habitat.

Led by the Monkton Conservation Commission and the Lewis Creek Association, a dedicated cadre of neighbors, scientists and amphibian enthusiasts have raised $325,000 to build two tunnels that will pass under the Vergennes-Monkton Road and give tiny amphibians an unfettered path between the Huizenga Swamp and the lower reaches of Hogback Mountain.

What wildlife crossing specialists call “culverts” in this case will be an under-the-road, U-shaped tunnel with a natural bottom, large enough for these small creatures.

The two tunnel sites have been staked and marked with bright orange spray paint, and starting Monday a crew from S.D. Ireland Brothers will begin to clear brush and prepare the site for heavy-duty construction. Construction supervisors expect the project to be completed in four to six weeks.

At that point, according to noted Vermont amphibian expert Jim Andrews of Salisbury, a host of blue-spotted salamanders will be able to creep safely out of the swamp and head back into the forest, to join other like-minded amphibians in finding winter cover.

“This project shows the amazing dedication and commitment that so many Vermonters have, the connection that we have to all the other beings that share this special place with us and our willingness to recognize how our roads can have such detrimental effects,” said Lewis Creek Association Board President Andrea Morgante.

“It’s relatively easy to raise money for the charismatic big mammals — but salamanders and frogs, you only see them if you go out into the woods and you turn over logs and rocks on a rainy night,” Morgante continued. “But we get it in Vermont that these salamanders count. Even though we don’t often see them, they are a really important part of the ecosystem, eating insects, close to the earth, in the damp, in the night. These guys are a part of us, and a lot of people in Vermont really appreciate that and are willing to donate money and their time to help.”

Why all the fuss for these small creatures?

“A fellow like me thinks that they have an intrinsic right to exist, just like we do,” said Andrews, who, among his many projects heads up the Vermont Amphibian and Reptile Atlas and who’s contributed to the final tunnel design. “But if you go beyond that, they’re the bottom of the food chain — the bottom of the food chain for a horde of species. They feed everything from raccoons and skunks to great blue herons and ducks, all the way up and down the line. They transport nutrients from wetlands to surrounding uplands.

“And they’re just plain cool.”

Cool they might be; but worldwide, amphibians are also imperiled.

At the Monkton site, one of the main reasons amphibian numbers have been declining is cars. Amphibians around Vermont migrate to spring mating grounds around late March as snow thaws and the weather warms. All over Vermont, as these small creatures cross the roads and brave the traffic, small armies of volunteers come out with buckets and flashlights to carry them across. But this simple strategy, which works fine on a quiet dirt road, is overwhelmed by a fast-moving paved road, on which cars typically speed at 45 to 60 mph, and on which daily traffic over the past few decades has grown from around 300 to around 1,800 cars per day.

Most motorists taking the Vergennes-Monkton Road don’t know their cars are speeding alongside one of largest and most diverse amphibian populations in the state. The Huizenga Swamp is home to many amphibian species found only in the Champlain Valley and is considered one of the most important sites in the state because of this abundance and diversity.

“At the Huizenga Swamp area there’s an astonishing number of amphibians,” Andrews said. “There’s diversity, there’s rarity and there’s really high mortality. Over 50 percent of the critters that try to cross that road die, and over time they’re just going to disappear.”

PROJECT INCEPTION

Chris Slesar, chair of the Monkton Conservation Commission and a member of the Lewis Creek Association board, recounted how he and Monkton neighbor Steve Parren first conceived of the amphibian crossing project a decade ago.

“I love going out on a quiet road and watching the spring migration with my kids. We’ve helped amphibians across the road, but on a quiet dirt road they don’t really need our help,” Slesar said.

“I started supporting Steve at this site, helping to get them across and record the data, and it was incredibly discouraging because it wasn’t this wonderful spring ritual of watching the emergence and the trip to the breeding pool. It was watching these animals run the gauntlet and counting the numbers that didn’t make it. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t sustainable, and we started talking about what would be a sustainable solution.”

Slesar, an environmental specialist for VTrans, and Parren, a wildlife biologist at the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, put their combined expertise together in service of one of their favorite species and favorite backyard spots. Their starting point was the Monkton Conservation Commission, where both served and today still serve. They started a growing coalition that won $195,000 in grants from federal and state governments, brought in a host of other nonprofit partners such as the Defenders of Wildlife and the TransWild Alliance, won the support of the Monkton selectboard, educated and reached out to friends and neighbors, brought the project attention from supporters worldwide, and together with the help of the Lewis Creek Alliance raised $130,000 in individual donations to achieve the needed $325,000 for total project costs.

Among the support was $150,000 from competitive federal grants earmarked for ecological enhancements to roads of all sizes. Typically these federal dollars go to bike path projects. The Monkton project was the first in the Northeast for which this category of federal grant went to a wildlife crossing.

Perhaps most impressively, the $130,000 in individual donations came from hundreds of Vermonters and ranged anywhere from $5 to $15,000. A few donations even came from as far away as England and Japan, and fundraising approaches included an Indiegogo online crowd-funding campaign. As donations came in, money was used toward preliminary engineering and consultancy. The rest was recently delivered to the Monkton selectboard, which is supervising the engineering and construction work on the tunnels.

On Aug. 10, the Lewis Creek Association, which has acted as the 501(c)3 body for the coalition’s fundraising efforts, handed the Monkton selectboard a $119,000 check.

So now, 10 years after all these efforts began, hardhats are on and construction is under way. Starting Monday, Aug. 24, motorists on the Vergennes-Monkton Road should expect delays.

MAKING IT MAINSTREAM

At the construction site this past Thursday afternoon, as they eyeballed where the funneling wing walls might go with construction supervisors from S.D. Ireland and engineers from Lamoureux and Dickinson, Andrews, Slesar and Monkton selectboard Chair Steve Pilcher joked that they were entering “an alternate reality,” given what a long road it had taken to make the wildlife crossing a reality.

“We’ve been working on this for 10 years, and when we first started it seemed really fringy. People were like ‘Oh my God, what are they doing!’” Slesar recalled. “But through solid science and engineering, we’ve demonstrated that actually it’s not fringy. It’s an important issue. There are solutions. And over time people have grown to understand that it’s more mainstream than they think.”

“For me,” Slesar continued, “the goal would be to have more transportation projects and more grassroots organizations and more watershed organizations identify opportunities to reconnect habitat. I’d like to see it become mainstream and become a routine part of transportation.”

Gaen Murphree is at [email protected]

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