"Crossing Brigades" for Migratory Amphibian Conservation

Posted by Brett Thelen on Friday, January 17 2014

We are seeking input and participation from Switzer Fellows on a potential project focused on "salamander crossing brigades" as a tool for conservation of migratory amphibian species in the northeastern United States. If you have an interest in citizen science, amphibian conservation, or road ecology, please read on!

Fellows: Brett Amy Thelen (Science Director, Harris Center for Conservation Education, Hancock, New Hampshire) and Brad Timm (Postdoctoral Fellow, Landscape Ecology Lab, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Conservation Issue. Amphibian road mortality is a significant conservation issue, particularly during the highly-synchronized annual spring migrations (“Big Nights”) undertaken by vernal pool-breeding species in the Northeast. Road mortality rates found along even quiet rural roads may be high enough to lead to localized extirpation of pool-breeding amphibians, and long-term impacts of roads on amphibian population dynamics can be severe (Gibbs and Shriver 2005; Beebee 2013). Design and installation of wildlife infrastructure (amphibian tunnels) is costly, and temporary road closures are often met with resistance by the general public. Over the last decade, conservation groups throughout the Northeast have responded to this issue by organizing “salamander crossing brigades,” in which trained volunteers move migrating amphibians across the road by hand during periods of peak traffic. It is clear that these salamander brigades are a fantastic opportunity for environmental education, but little research has been done on their effectiveness as an amphibian conservation measure.

Potential Approach. We are seeking feedback from the Switzer Network on a collaborative research project to investigate how crossing brigades contribute to the conservation of migratory amphibian species in the northeastern United States.

Our initial discussions have focused on field assessments of the effectiveness of amphibian crossing programs relative to localized populations of migratory amphibian species. (In other words: what percentage of the amphibians attempting to cross roadways during seasonal migrations is “saved” by crossing brigade volunteers at any given site?) We’d like to conduct a pilot project at a field site in southwestern New Hampshire during the 2014 spring amphibian migration season, and host a subsequent gathering of potential partners (crossing brigade coordinators from non-profits and government agencies throughout the Northeast, as well as conservation biologists from an array of non-profit, academic, and governmental organizations with an interest in road mortality), with an eye toward building collaborations for a larger, regional research initiative.

We’ve also discussed two additional, related research avenues: one focused on the effectiveness of amphibian-specific road signage and/or educational materials distributed to residents living near known amphibian crossings, and another centered on developing predictive models to forecast when the greatest numbers of amphibians are most likely to be on roadways, to inform potential road closures and to focus volunteer efforts on those times when they’re likely to have the greatest impact. (We’re envisioning enlisting citizen scientists to help collect model training and validation data.)

Connecting to the Switzer Network. Are any other Switzer Fellows working with amphibian crossing brigades and/or knowledgeable about amphibian road mortality or related citizen science programs? What feedback would you offer on these ideas? Are any Fellows interested in collaborating on one or more of these projects with us? We plan to apply for a Network Innovation Grant and other funding sources for the pilot project.

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