Curtis Tate Published

In Appalachia, ‘Salamander Capital Of The World,’ Species Face Threats

A pale pink salamander swims in shallow, clear water.
The West Virginia spring salamander.
U.S. Geological Survey

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to list the West Virginia spring salamander on the endangered species list. Curtis Tate spoke with Will Harlan, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, about the threatened salamander.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tate: Your organization says there are fewer than 300 spring salamanders left, all of them in Greenbrier County. 

Harlan: Yes, and that’s, that’s a generous estimate. They only exist in this single cave system with this single stream flowing through it. And despite the critical habitat protections that this new listing will provide, they only provide to the subsurface habitat of this species. Above it is all private land. And unfortunately, there is logging and pond construction that will threaten this stream, and its habit and in the underground habitat. So still, the species will still face some threats, even with this protection.

Tate: What can be done about it? Is a conservation easement possible?

Harlan: So there are certainly some steps that can be taken. And it’s still early. This is just the proposed rule, then the final rule has to be issued. And then there’ll be more specifics that follow, hopefully. The listing will encourage the private landowner to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the private landowners surrounding this habitat, to adopt habitat conservation plans that will mitigate the impacts to the species. Essentially what happens is, private landowners are asked to voluntarily take mitigation measures to reduce their impact to the species. Now, ultimately, Fish and Wildlife Service can be more strong-armed, but they prefer to work with landowners to try to come up with voluntary measures to reduce their impact on endangered species.

Tate: How does the spring salamander rank among endangered species?

Harlan: I would say this is one of the more endangered species in the country. With such a small population and only a single location remaining, it is incredibly vulnerable to extinction. And with no public lands surrounding it, it’s essentially dependent on private landowners to do the right thing at this point. And that makes it an incredibly precarious position. So I would say this is among the most endangered species in the country. Thankfully, Fish and Wildlife Service has stepped in. And provided not just endangered species status, but also critical habitat, which ensures that its essential habitat is permanently protected, and every possible measure is taken to ensure that upstream impacts are minimized. So it now has a fighting chance.

Tate: Why is it down to the one cave system? Is it possible to reintroduce it somewhere else?

Harlan: West Virginia and Virginia have some unique geography. They have these cave systems, there’s limestone, there’s karst, there’s different geologic formations. But there are numerous caves in the region. And a lot of them are connected through underground water systems. It’s possible, and likely that the West Virginia spring salamander existed in many caves throughout the region. But they’re incredibly sensitive to sedimentation and runoff. The streams are essentially their sole source of food. These salamanders are blind as adults, so they can’t look for their food, they have to wait for the food to come to them through these underground streams in their caves. And if those streams are loaded with sediment, if they’re clogged with silt, from logging, from development, from a number of human impacts, they’re not going to find food, they’re not going to survive. So likely, over many generations, they’ve been whittled down to the single population hanging on in this one remaining cave. They could be introduced into other caves, potentially, but that would take some careful scientific research to make sure that other species would not be negatively affected in those caves, including other rare salamanders. So it’s possible to reintroduce them, but I think we’d have to do some more research first.

Tate: Are other types of salamanders facing the same threats?

Harlan: Unfortunately, yes, they’re facing many of the same threats. But salamanders occupy a wide variety of niches, a wide variety of habitats. So some salamanders face different threats than others, but they all face some common themes in terms of threats. I think industrial logging, industrial mining, dams and developments, dilution of water quality, water pollution, I think are kind of some of the common threads. But I mentioned some other salamanders in West Virginia that are also on the brink, that we’re also awaiting a listing decision for could come any day. We were told it was supposed to come this month, so it could be within the next week. 

The yellow spotted woodland salamander, almost a completely different habitat than the cave salamander, but some similar overlap too. So this salamander only exists in the shale and sandstone outcrops that are also targeted by mountaintop removal mining. So this salamander hides in the crevices of these outcrops; there’s only 21 populations left. Most of them are only a couple of a single or a couple individuals; only 65 of the salamanders have been seen in the last 20 years. So they’re barely hanging on. And mountaintop removal mining is targeting the same habitat where they live. So that’s an existential threat to this species.

But there’s also the Cheat Mountain salamander which only exists in the Cheat Mountain region of West Virginia. And these salamanders don’t have lungs, and they hide on the forest floor. Essentially, they need moist, cool damp habitats. And if those forests are logged, or drought, or other factors dry out their habitat, they’re toast. So they need these cool, moist habitats that Appalachia has historically provided all of our water, the number of rivers and streams flowing through the region and the dense canopies historically have provided perfect habitat for salamanders. This is the salamander capital of the world. Appalachia is home to more species of salamander than anywhere else on the planet. But because of what we’re doing to that habitat, we’re jeopardizing a lot of these species.