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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Tiger Pause

Golf courses displace the once-thriving California tiger salamander

By Jim Rendon

Name: Ambystoma californiense
Status: California species of special concern
Natural Habitat: Coastal foothills to Sierra foothills, primarily Central Valley
Last Stand Here: Ponds and open fields, primarily in the eastern foothills
Reason for Demise: Golf course development, sprawl, bullfrogs

A CENTURY AND A HALF AGO, Santa Clara County was tiger salamander paradise. The valley floor was a swampy mess half the year, so much so that the Ohlone Indians traversed vast sections of the valley not on foot but in canoelike rafts that they made out of reeds. In the summer, the rivers sank back inside their banks and the land dried out. A tiger salamander couldn't find a happier home.

Now, it is the most likely local species to be moved onto the federal endangered species list. The black and yellow striped amphibian mates and lays eggs in water, but spends most of the rest of the year roaming about on dry land--a range of habitat that is hard to find these days.

In the winter, when rains create temporary ponds, salamanders find their way into these pools to mate.

After a few days, the salamanders abandon the pond and each other and go on what David Wright, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, calls a walkabout. The amphibians can travel up to a half a mile from the pond, he says. Like burrowing owls, they look for vacant ground-squirrel holes and hunker down for the hot, dry summer. They come out at night to look for earthworms, snails, insects, fish and even small mammals.

Because they require both seasonal pools, almost entirely paved or plowed over in the valley, and the open grassland that attracts ground squirrels, the tiger salamanders have been pinched by the human impulse to develop. "Anything that modifies their breeding habitat and the surrounding land is going to have an effect--urban, suburban and agricultural development, even row crops and orchards," Wright says.

Ranching is about the only land use that is compatible with the species, he says.

The few salamanders that remain in the valley have indeed been pushed to its edges. According to Breon, some developers have attempted to move larvae of salamanders by depositing them in the Kirby Canyon area of the eastern hills. The district attorney investigated allegations that Cinnabar Hills Golf Course developer Lee Brandenburg bulldozed ponds near Calero Reservoir which biologists believed contained the rare salamanders. Charges were never filed.

Even with the best intentions, salamanders can have a tough go of it. At Stanford, the population is faltering. Their summering habitat is across Junipero Serra Boulevard from their breeding ponds. At night, when they cross the road, many of them are run over by cars. The university is considering building an underpass for the creatures, but Wright is skeptical.

"Tiger salamanders are pretty focused on getting from point A to point B; they travel in straight lines and have a very good orientation system," Wright says. "If you put up a fence, they will go over or through it."

After a century of paving, flood control projects and golf-course sculpting, this valley just isn't the amphibious paradise it used to be.

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From the November 24-December 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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