About 100 miles south of Chileno Valley Road, another volunteer group, the Alma Bridge Newt Patrol, has painstakingly documented more than 5,000 newts per year crossing a 4-mile stretch of road in the mountains of Santa Cruz.
Unlike Gale’s Brigade, the Newt Patrol is unable to save many Newts – it is illegal for them to park along the winding mountain road at night. Instead, a dozen volunteers, led by biologist Merav Vonshak, document the dead.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” Vonshak says, especially in late fall when many juvenile newts die. “As a scientist, I try to detach myself and focus on the importance of documenting this.”
Using volunteer data, researchers at the UC Davis Road Ecology Center found that newts crossing Alma Bridge Road experienced one of the highest reported road kill rates of any wildlife in the world. world. A study commissioned by local officials found that the adult population of California newts along Alma Bridge Road will completely disappear in about 50 years if nothing is done.
On the contrary, the report presented an optimistic view, says Vonshak. He failed to take into account the impact of the climate crisis and development on the population.
Researchers have found that the body condition of Southern California newts, a measure comparing weight and length, decreased by 20% between 2008 and 2016. This is a sign that extreme temperatures and drought, exacerbated by global warming, are already affecting Pacific newts, according to Gary Bucciarelli, a UCLA conservation biologist who led the 2020 study. Northern California newts will likely suffer the same consequences in years to come. , he said.
Newts “face more prolonged droughts and changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change, they face wildfires,” Bucciarelli said. “They are hammered hard.”
“You want to fight for this”
Gale knows that she and her brigade can only continue their work for so long. “Of course, that’s not a lasting solution,” she says.
Both groups of newts have called for longer-term solutions, advocating either closing roads during migration season or raising roads so that at least some of the newts can safely cross below.
But so far, their efforts have had little success. Previous grant applications to raise sections of Alma Bridge Road and create newt crossings were rejected. And newts, which are not listed as endangered or threatened, are less likely to be prioritized for existing state or federal funding for such projects.
Environmentalists are pushing for a new bill, introduced in the California Assembly last month, that would require the state’s transportation agency to implement 10 projects to improve wildlife connectivity a year. If enacted, this bill could help fund underpasses for newt populations on national roads and major highways. But since Alma Bridge Road and Chileno Valley Road are county-run roads, neither would be helped directly.
“It’s hard, because how long can we save newts when we’re also building more highways?” says Paul Licht, the former director of the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens, who advised efforts to protect migrating newts. “I mean…not long.”
“But what is your alternative? Do nothing?” he added.
This is also Gale’s point of view. And there’s something about being outside on dark, damp nights and holding wriggling newts, she says, that can help overcome all the uncertainty and worry.
“It’s a bit like holding a human baby in your arms,” says Brigadier Shannon Drew. “It’s that precious little perfect thing you hold and you want to fight for it.”
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