Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dead Salamanders - then Salamandistas to the rescue!

For many years, herpetologist Karen Glennemeier and her daughters have monitored the blue-spotted salamanders of Somme Woods. Dark blue with light blue spots, they are handsome, inspiring, somewhat rare creatures that hike to breeding ponds in early spring. Maggie and Annie turn over logs and count them. We don't touch their delicate skins unless our hands are moist with natural, un-chlorinated water. We carefully turn back the logs so the little characters can stay moist and protected. We've never found a dead one.

Blue-spotted salamander: as we'd very much rather see them.
Two days ago Cecil Hyns-Riddle and I started finding them shriveled and dead. Cecil is organizing a more sophisticated study of Somme Woods' many frog and salamander (and snake?) species, starting this spring. The new Somme 2030 group is taking many initiatives, and this is one. When Cecil and I first noticed a dried-up salamander in the parking lot, we felt bad for it, as an individual. But then we spotted another, and another, and on a quick walk down the pavement to her car (rushing to a next appointment) we counted 62 little cadavers.

Just a day earlier I had written to the Forest Preserve staff to express my concern about heavy salt in this sensitive area. "All this salt drains into the streams where so many listed plants are and the ponds where the blue-spotted salamanders and spring peepers breed," I wrote. It hadn't crossed my mind that salt could be a problem while it was on the pavement.

You could easily miss the shrivelled little corpses. But when we looked close, they were everywhere.
I stopped back yesterday, on another mission, and counted 25 more on a part of the pavement we hadn't walked. So we documented at least 87 deaths. Certainly there were many more; we didn't search systematically or cover the whole paved and salty area.

Why was this much salt needed? Why was any salt needed?"

Salamanders are mighty survivors from the age of the dinosaurs and before. They're the only vertebrates that can grow back a severed limb. But they could smoke without inhaling; they can breathe through their skin. Their moist skin is a very sensitive organ.

At first we assumed the bodies had been flattened by cars. But why had we never seen anything like this in decades? Then we noticed that some of the little torsos weren't flat. Now CSI, we decided that the squashed ones may have been dead before flattening. We started to notice that the densest graveyards of remains were in the areas with the heaviest salt. One such area just 10 by 20 feet had 16 dead salamanders and 1 dead chorus frog.

Now we started looking more carefully out of the main stream of traffic; here many weren't flattened at all. Check out the little guy below:

Many of the victims hadn't been flattened at all. If not run over by cars, then what?
CSI evidence included grains of salt caked on their sides, heads, limbs and tails.
"It wouldn't take much salt to desiccate a salamander," as one Forest Preserve ecologist put it. 
In response to my email on the first 62 tragedies, I got a quick call back from Forest Preserve staff. Chief ecologist Chip O'Leary came out and bagged a lot of evidence. He was as concerned as we were. There will be an investigation. We'll report here what we learn.

CREDITS: Inspiring photo of healthy blue-spotted salamander by Lisa Culp. Photos of asphalt, salt, misery, and death courtesy of S. Packard's cell phone.

FIRST UPDATE: March 19. 2:00 PM
Josh Coles and I were just at the preserve to plan this Sunday's work party. To our surprise, parallel lines of cleanliness seem to indicate that the drives and parking areas have been swept with some kind of street-sweeper. This is fast work, as the staff only got our message two days ago. The machine does seem to have swept up a lot of the salt, although some areas still have quite a bit.

Tina, Bob, Cecil, and I swept up 12 quarts of salt. The more we can remove the better.
We measured the quantity of salt. Makes us feel better about all that sweeping?

THIRD UPDATE: March 21: 11:00 AM
This morning I got a call from Cecil, crying out in a pained emergency voice, "They're scattered around the parking lot again. Many dried out and dead. Many more still alive and struggling. It's horrible!"

This morning, the volunteer crew saved 53 salamanders. For some reason there was another wave of migration last night. About 40 others were so desiccated that they didn't respond when we put them in fresh water. We left them in the pond. Some of the still ones might recover? But at least 30 were clearly dead, raising our body count to at least 110. Are the numbers trivial? Or to they add to the depth of the nearly-invisible drama?

We cruised the parking lot - finding and depositing salted salamanders in glasses of pond water -
then freed the little guys in their pond. 

It was easy for twenty or thirty salamanders to fit in one glass. 
Cecil Hynds-Riddle deserves huge credit for rounding us up and spreading the word on this mission. But her obvious reward is the truly blessed pleasure she clearly gets from helping these little fellow lovers of Somme Woods. 
The Forest Preserve staff arranged for the machine that did some sweeping up yesterday. But the machine broke after only a couple of passes. Now they are in the process of renting another kind of machine that should be able to finish the job. Thanks to Director of Resource Management John McCabe for the quick response.

FORTH UPDATE: March 21. 5:30 PM
Forest Preserve staffer Ron Pitelka brought heavy equipment to sweep up salt. Worked really hard for most of the day. Hard to adjust the machinery right, but in the end he got it. Looks like most of the loose salt is gone. (More details in later summary.) Thank you, Ron!

FIFTH UPDATE: March 22. 5:30 - 6:00 AM
Checked the whole lot. No salamanders. Perhaps too cold to migrate today?

The comment below was in response to a Facebook post where we Friends of Somme thanked him for his determination and hard work. It is so important that the Forest Preserves (a government agency) have people with heart, competence, and dedication like Ron Pitelka.

Ronnie Pitelka Thanks for all the kind words, Steve! I'm really glad I was able to help today, although I wish there was more I could do. I have to admit, before you showed up, the entire project seemed kinda silly and pointless, as there were no large piles of salt left, just a dusting on the whole lot that seemed insignificant. Once you showed me the dried up critters with the fine grains of salt stuck to them, it really helped me to see what needed to be done. Seeing the pictures on here and reading the blog about this project makes me really happy that I was able to get the sweeper working properly and that I spent the extra time that I did up there today. From an employee's point of view, I feel really bad that this happened. While I don't apply salt for the Forest Preserve, I have operated salt trucks in the past and I can say it's very difficult to actually see how much salt is being deposited, and simply stopping or backing up the salt truck can result in large concentrated deposits. I'm certain whoever salted the lot probably thought they were doing a great job by being so thorough with the salt knowing their work would prevent someone from falling on ice, unfortunately, it really helps illustrate the need for better communication between our departments. While individual goals need to be met, there can sometimes be unforseen and inadvertent consequences to just about any work that is done, especially when the entire picture is not always presented. Hopefully this sort of damage can be prevented in the future by simply not salting this lot, or utilizing an alternative such as sand. Despite the reason for our interaction, it was a pleasure meeting you and learning today! Thanks so much for your and all of the stewards' and volunteers' hard work!!

Many people have suggested flushing the caked salt off the asphalt with lots of water - and explored practical ways to do it. (Part of the problem has been that there was no significant precipitation since the heavy salt 
was applied. Thus salamanders can't get past the concentrated surface salt barrier that separates their winter hibernacula from the breeding ponds.) One problem has been that the only easily-obtainable water available for the purpose is chlorinated hydrant water. Then, today, we finally got a good snowfall. John McCabe asked FP Police and Maintenance to leave the lot closed and not plow it, so the snow can dissolve the salt and wash it away. The snow is already melting and water flowing. Tomorrow we expect good rains. Perhaps this trial is behind us?

A good summary of the issues on WBEZ's "Afternoon Shift"
Over-salting is hurting Chicago’s wildlife

Every year, more than 22 million tons of salt are dumped on U.S. roads and highways, but that doesn’...
After days of sweeping, scraping, and finally a good snow fall and melt, this blue-spotted salamander  seemed to cross the asphalt just fine. We wish it happy and productive mating season in the pond that awaits it. (The moving image doesn't seem to last very long here on the blog. There's a longer version of these classy moves at


LCulp said...

I think the lack of any rain so far is a factor in this tragedy. Can the fpd RINSE the parking lot instead of sweep it? That will really get rid of the salt...

Anonymous said...

from Dennis Dreher:

Very sad. Lots of literature reports of salinity impacts on salamanders. If you're able, I would try to collect water samples in the nearby ephemeral ponds and have them tested for chlorides. And if there are any ponds not directly impacted by parking lot runoff, collect samples there for comparison.

Anonymous said...

From Robb Telfer:

From the Prairie Research Institute's Natural Cultural Resources Master Plan: Seasonally, chloride concentrations in surface water peak during winter (December–March) when road salt (mostly NaCl) is applied to keep drivers safe by melting snow and ice. Even after correcting for these seasonal patterns, chloride increased in Chicago waterways between 2000 and 2010. Concentrations did show a sharp decline in 2011–2012 when the city recorded its 9th warmest winter ever. However, 2013–2014 witnessed the 3rd coldest winter on record, and road salt applications returned to high levels. Chloride is toxic to most freshwater organisms, so elevated concentrations can have major impacts on aquatic flora and fauna. Even at levels that are not completely toxic, it can prompt changes in plant and animal communities, favoring chloride-tolerant species like cattails and bullfrogs over most other species. But because road salt plays an important role in transportation safety and its alternatives are costly, its use is unlikely to be curtailed. Consequently, high chloride concentrations may hamper the success of conservation projects.

Stephen Packard said...

To Lisa: If possible, we don't want the salt washed into the breeding ponds. On the other hand, I share your concern. The salamanders usually travel to the ponds on rainy nights. If there's a heavy rain, probably they'll be able to cross the asphalt okay. It may have been a light rain last time that trapped them in concentrated salt solution.

Anonymous said...

Judging by the thick layer of salt in your photo, FPD maintenance staff need better training in environmentally friendly pavement deicing approaches. In our region, McHenry and Lake Counties are leaders in providing training to maintenance crews. See:

And perhaps a policy is needed to mandate alternatives to salt in environmentally sensitive areas — e.g., where ephemeral ponds and amphibians are present.

Anonymous said...

That's just heartbreaking. Do you think that's most of if not the entire population of salamanders in that particular area of Somme? I wonder what they can do to remediate it. Can they put down sand in certain areas where there are larger populations of amphibians? (Morton Arb puts down sand in their lot but of course they don't have 60+K acres to manage.)

I've always wondered whether road salt might be one of the culprits in the gradual disappearance of some of our more conservative native species, esp. orchids, and that email thread seems to suggest that might be a factor? What do you think?

From Kathleen Garness

Stephen Packard said...

Kathleen, fortunately, only a small part of the salamander population at Somme needed to cross the parking area to get to the ponds. But the dead salamanders on the asphalt may be most significant as an indicator of a broader problem. Why are we dumping all this salt into the soils, ponds, and streams of an ecological preserve? It's not needed for safety here. The lot is relatively flat. It's small. No one needs to drive fast. A winter speed limit of 10 MPH would be more than adequate for safety (and cheaper),

Anonymous said...

Forest Preserve District of Will County uses sand on the slick areas in the parking lots after plowing.

Richard Wachenheim
Volunteer Regional Steward
West of Route 45 Will County

Anonymous said...

The Buffalo Creek Clean Water Partnership estimates that the eight
villages in northwest Cook and southwest Lake County in the Buffalo
Creek watershed apply between 8-20,000 tons of road salt (100-300
pounds per resident) per year depending on snow and ice conditions.
This figure does not include salt applied on state- or
county-maintained roads, by landowners or private snow removal
operators on driveways, sidewalks or parking lots.

Road salt is 61% chloride, which is particularly toxic to native plants
and animals. Most of that chloride ends up streams through snow melt
and storm runoff but salt spray can also carry hundreds of feet in from
roadways. Testing in Buffalo Creek and its tributaries shows that the
Illinois EPA water quality standard of 500 parts per million is
routinely exceeded in winter and spring. The USEPA has identified a
chronic level of chloride pollution of 230 parts per million that is
harmful to aquatic life. Chloride levels are an important reason why
tolerant plants, such as Phragmites, reed canary grass and cattails are
so successful in invading roadsides and natural areas that are exposed
to salt. Our in-stream macro-invertebrate populations in Buffalo Creek
are low in diversity and biotic integrity, indicating water quality
that ranges from fair to very poor. Chloride toxicity is likely a
major cause.

Communities and landowners can take steps to significantly reduce their
use of road salt. Alternative products are used to pre-treat road
surfaces but total replacement of sodium chloride with other deicing
products is generally considered cost-prohibitive. Snow removal
policies can be re-written to specify that not all roads, side streets
and sidewalks need to be completely clear and dry within hours of a
winter storm. Equipment should be calibrated and operators educated to
avoid waste. Lake County Health Department and Stormwater Management
Commission offer annual training programs for operators. Landowner
contracts should not reward operators by paying based on the amount of
salt applied.

And we as stewards can notify authorities when we see
piles of salt dumped in roads and parking lots, and question winter
maintenance policies.

Jeff Weiss
Buffalo Creek Clean Water Partnership

Bob Miller said...

Think we did a pretty good job today I think we will have depend on a good rain to take care of the residual salt.

Bob Miller said...

That said I became more aware that this residual salt residue gets washed into the preserve via a storm drain.
Effecting everything downstream plants and animal life alike.

Dave Coulter said...

Thanks for posting this excellent story - which I've shared on Twitter as well. These problems definitely need greater attention...