Santa Clara County refuses to close road to save newts

The death toll for Pacific Newts on Alma Bridge Road is fast approaching 4,000 for this migration season (plus a few days from last season).

On February 11, 2019 the Audubon Society and Sierra Club environmental advocates wrote a strongly worded letter to the SCC Board of Supervisors requesting immediate action, such as partial road closure, to address the massive roadkill problem on Alma Bridge Road. Today we received a response from the county. They refused to close the road, they agreed to post "Newt Crossing" signs, and then threw the responsibility for coming up with a permanent solution back at Audubon and Sierra Club, even though the county owns the road and it's their responsibility.

It feels like I'm witnessing the annihilation of this population of newts. There may come a time when there are no more newts at Lexington Reservoir.

Posted by truthseqr truthseqr, March 09, 2019 06:09 AM

Comments

I wonder how Audubon and the Sierra Club will respond. They have legal means to volley the responsibility back to the County.

It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to store DNA samples from this population. Thoughts?, @gregpauly

Posted by biohexx1 over 3 years ago (Flag)

How many local papers has this hit? I know it was in Mercury News and on Bay Nature - any chance of submitting op-eds to more papers?

Posted by jilliankern over 3 years ago (Flag)

Well that sucks. Is this a new road?

Posted by alexb0000 over 3 years ago (Flag)

This is so disappointing!

Posted by archaeopteryx over 3 years ago (Flag)

@alexb0000, This is an old country road. The roadkill has probably been going on for years, but this year, for some reason, it seems to be extra bad. I've noticed a large increase in the number of people who visit this area in the past few years (hiking, biking, jogging, boating). Also, housing development is booming at Lexington. It's getting downright crowded there.

@jilliankern, those two publications are the only ones. The Mercury News has a readership of 5 million. A lot of people have commented about that article. Still, the county is not motivated to do anything about the problem except put up a few signs that people will ignore just like they ignore the 25 mph and 15 mph speed limit signs on this curvy mountain road. Most vehicles seem to go about 40 mph.

Posted by truthseqr over 3 years ago (Flag)

How much is the county willing to let audobon and sierra club do?

I wonder if it would be possible to do something like this: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/12045930/Crabs-get-their-own-bridge-to-cross-busy-road-on-Christmas-Island.html

instead of a bridge maybe drift fencing and some kind of speed bump with a tunnel in the middle for the newts to go through? IDK if anybody's done that but it seems like newts wouldnt need a huge structure to get them across the road safely

Posted by asemerdj over 3 years ago (Flag)

@asemerdj, I don't know the answer to your first question. Dr. Fraser Shilling of UC Davis Road Ecology Dept. may be able to get a grant for some type of solution to address this issue. I'm not sure what he has in mind.

I was thinking of a speed bump with a tunnel in the middle at one point, too. I suggested this option to my contacts at Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) and Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), but they didn't respond to my suggestion.

A grad student did a project in Santa Cruz for the endangered Long-toed Salamander. He came up with the ingenious idea of putting railroad ties in the road in such a way that they provided tunnels for the salamanders to cross safely (see the picture on p 79):
• Fall 2013 Amphibian Mortality on Roads: A Case Study in Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander Habitat, by Michael Thomas Hobbs San Jose State University:
http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7936&context=etd_theses

I think there are several viable options, it's just a matter of getting someone to do them. The county owns the road, so it's ultimately up to them.

Very interesting article about the crab migration in Australia. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by truthseqr over 3 years ago (Flag)

Can't the county build an undercrossing for the newts?

Posted by beartracker over 3 years ago (Flag)

@beartracker, that's one option. Actually, there are already many under-road culverts along this road for water drainage. However, there are two problems:

The newts don't always use the culverts - the reason is not clear. Some say they need to see "light at the end of the tunnel" or they won't enter. Others say they come up on the road to eat earthworms washed up by the rain. Fence-like nets can be used to "herd" the animals to the culverts and prevent them from entering the road.
Some of the culverts have a 10-15 ft. drop. A herpetologist told me the newts can easily survive such a drop, but the problem comes when they try to return to their home in the highlands. They obviously can't use the drop culvert, so they have to use the road.

It sounds easy enough to build an undercrossing for the newts. However, this is a 4.1 mile long road and newt roadkill has been found all along its length. The question becomes, where to build the undercrossing? And will it be effective? Undercrossings and culverts require maintenance because they become clogged with leaves, twigs, rocks & dirt and need to be cleaned out.

There is a project that is ongoing adjacent to the Lexington Reservoir - it is a wildlife crossing over Highway 17. There is very high mortality on that highway. It is aimed at protecting large mammals such as mountain lions, deer, coyotes, foxes, etc. Newts weren't factored into that project. Multiple agencies have been working on it for 4-8 years, depending on if you count the planning part. It still hasn't been built yet.

There is an unbelievable amount of politics involved in building road crossings: gathering data, analyzing the problem, researching appropriate mitigations, getting the cooperation of all affected agencies, and then actually building the road crossing. It gives me a big headache (and heartache) just thinking about it. I admire our Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) and Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) wildlife biologists and project managers for being able to do that kind of work.

Posted by truthseqr over 3 years ago (Flag)

@truthseqr That is so frustrating. The Hobbs paper is an ingenious idea - I'm at least going to go ahead and contact my state reps and see if more voices helps increase county pressure even slightly.

Posted by jilliankern over 3 years ago (Flag)

Here's the language I'm using to contact legislators, if anyone wants to borrow:

Dear ,

I'm writing in regards to a pressing environmental issue in Santa Clara County that threatens California's reputation as a conservation leader. The Pacific Newt (Taricha torosa) population at Lexington Reservoir is victim to habitat fragmentation and must cross a 4 mile section of Alma Bridge Road to reach their breeding grounds every year. Due to a development boom in the area and the high speed of vehicle travel, thousands of newts die on the road every year.

This migration season, dedicated volunteer scientists and naturalists have counted nearly 4,000 crushed newts. You can find more data on this in an article in the Mercury News or on iNaturalist.org under a project titled Pacific Newts - Lexington Reservoir Area. These deaths may sound trivial, since newts are small and often inconspicuous, but each of those 4,000 amphibians had a life expectancy of up to 20 years, and monitoring the bloody carnage has a serious psychological impact on volunteers.

Alma Bridge Road is in the domain of Santa Clara County, but even in the face of advocacy from the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and the Sierra Club’s Loma Prieta Chapter, their board of supervisors has deferred action and responsibility except to post "Newt Crossing" signs which have little impact and are frequently stolen. There are viable solutions available if only officials would act. Timely road closures would be most effective for the newts, but there are alternatives, including the promising Aggregated Salamander Passage Track system developed by Michael Hobbs at SJSU, which utilizes railroad tracks to create small, built-in pass-throughs for amphibians with road-crossing migration corridors.

Taricha torosa is often called the California Newt. California needs to take action and do better by its small, vulnerable residents.

Best regards,

Posted by jilliankern over 3 years ago (Flag)

Awesome letter!

Posted by biohexx1 over 3 years ago (Flag)

Jillian, thank you so much! This is a fantastic letter. I'm very grateful to you for writing it.

A couple suggestions (these are probably my fault for not being clear):

The road is 4.1 miles long, but the newts only have to cross the street (twice). That one sentence makes it sound like the newts have to travel the full 4.1 mile length of the road.
Two species of newts are affected: T. torosa and T. granulosa.
The total roadkill count is 3,895 (I said it was nearing 4000, which we'll probably reach this week). But this total includes 471 roadkill from last season too, not just this season. Sorry for not being clear.

Other than these, all your facts are spot on and compelling. Again, thank you for your awesome letter and for sharing it with us so others can join in. I truly appreciate it!

Posted by truthseqr over 3 years ago (Flag)

Thanks for the clarifications! Anyone who uses it will probably want to make those changes - I already sent mine and frankly I suspect getting someone to drop a political word based on pity will matter more than the details, but those are good to know.

Posted by jilliankern over 3 years ago (Flag)

I agree. They're not particularly interested in the details. They care how people feel about the situation. (I admire the speed with which you wrote and sent this skillfully worded letter. I labor over my writings for days if not weeks.)

Posted by truthseqr over 3 years ago (Flag)

@truthseqr No problem! As the rare humanities academic who does naturalist stuff I am happy to at least be useful for writing letters even if my biology and botany is weak lol.

Posted by jilliankern over 3 years ago (Flag)

@jilliankern, have you received a reply to your letter?

Posted by truthseqr over 3 years ago (Flag)

I contacted PETA but still no response. Will keep you updated.

Posted by biohexx1 over 3 years ago (Flag)

Nothing yet. I did check the box to request replies so something should be coming at some point.

Posted by jilliankern over 3 years ago (Flag)

Is PETA going to be helpful? They don't have the best record for helping the animals they claim to be helping.

Posted by mws over 3 years ago (Flag)

@mws , PETA basically referred us to the Sierra Club, which of course truthseqr has contaced already.

h.

Posted by biohexx1 over 3 years ago (Flag)

Ok, that makes sense.

Posted by mws over 3 years ago (Flag)

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