Who speaks for the salamanders?

Concerned citizens help wildlife cross the road

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To paraphrase Dr. Seuss’ Lorax (who spoke for the trees, if I recall the old animated TV show correctly) apparently Tom and Debora Mann and others speak for the salamanders.


The salamanders in question live in burrows on one side of the Natchez Trace Parkway near Jackson, Miss., and breed in seasonal ponds on the other side. On rainy nights, when the ponds fill up, dozens of salamanders can be found crawling across the roadway to get to their mating grounds. Unfortunately, the traffic doesn’t stop for salamanders, and many of the 3- to 9-in. critters are squashed under the wheels of vehicles.


Tom and Debora Mann also can be found on the Natchez Trace Parkway on rainy nights, scooping up salamanders and helping them get safely across the road, the New York Times reported. The Manns are biologists who live near Jackson, Miss. Tom is a zoologist at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science. Debora is a biology professor. Along with a group of volunteers, they give their time and effort in the rain to save the small, slimy amphibians. On the night reported by the New York Times, the band of helpers escorted at least 120 salamanders across the road but found another 20 dead.


The group wishes the National Park Service would close that 2-mile stretch of the Natchez Trace during salamander mating season, but they have settled for a pair of lights that flash to signal drivers to slow from 50 mph to 35 mph and watch for the small creatures.


Salamander-saving efforts can be found all over the country, according to the report, and in some areas, the creatures have become the center of battles between conservationists and developers.


When the speed-reduction signs went up, some people mocked them, but many visitors to the area respond positively, according to park rangers. The park service has even developed a salamander-education kit to inform elementary school students.


I don’t have the answer to how to balance the needs of human development and the needs of our environment. Maybe some people think it’s silly to worry about the lives of salamanders. I think it’s a shame to let animals be killed by human development when we can do something about it. I think we still have a lot to learn about how the critters in our environment are interconnected, how we are dependent on them and how snipping one thread might cause the web to unravel. And we aren’t snipping just one thread; we’re sweeping through handfuls of them.


I wonder why the road was placed across a salamander trail. Maybe it wasn’t known to be a salamander trail at the time the road was built. Why couldn’t the road be built somewhere else? Sounds like a lack of context-sensitive design to me.


I don’t have the answers, but I’ll tell you this: I’m glad someone is speaking and acting for the salamanders, because it seems we got the balance wrong in this case.


I’m also confident that if the debate does not happen within the road-building industry, it will happen in the courts with road-builders pitted against angry communities, and that isn’t good for anybody.

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