By Michele S. Byers
ON EARLY SPRING nights with just the right conditions – rainy, over 40 degrees and no frozen ground – huge numbers of frogs, toads and salamanders suddenly respond to nature’s call. Venturing from their winter burrows in wooded uplands, they head to the marshy lowlands and vernal pools of their birth, where instinct leads them to return and mate.
For the luckiest amphibians, there will be no roads along their route. But for those whose paths are crossed by pavement, there’s a hardy and dedicated group of humans who stay awake on chilly, wet nights to shuttle them to safety.
For the past 10 years, this group has helped the amphibians of this state we’re in – including wood frogs, spotted salamanders, spring peepers and Jefferson salamanders – survive road crossings where the mortality rate could otherwise be as high as 50 percent.
“These amphibians are pretty single-minded,” says MacKenzie Hall, a biologist with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, who leads the amphibian crossing program. “They can sense the water, they really can.” What they can’t sense, of course, is the danger of traffic.
The Conserve Wildlife Foundation partners with the New Jersey Audubon Society and the New Jersey Endangered and Nongame Species Program on the amphibian crossing project, training volunteers to literally stop traffic at certain places in northern New Jersey to help the amphibians cross. At other times, they simply scoop the critters up and carry them to the other side.
Since 2002, volunteers have rescued untold thousands of frogs, salamanders and toads from the perilous treads of rubber meeting the road. While they’re at the crossings, they also collect data on the numbers and species seen. On certain peak nights, there have been as many as 1,800 amphibians counted at a single location!
The New York Times once described these volunteer helpers as “Chaperones to an Amphibian Dance,” but they’re actually more like school crossing guards. They dress in reflective safety vests, carry flashlights and keep a sharp eye out for their charges – in this case, small, shiny creatures appearing along damp road shoulders.
They even place “Frog Crossing” signs in the middle of the road on migration nights. Now, that gets attention!
The program began in Warren County at a particularly ominous spot – Shades of Death Road. (No, it wasn’t named for the frogs that didn’t make it.) This year there are six amphibian crossing locations in Warren, Sussex and Passaic counties, with about 130 volunteers.
Hall says the program may expand in future years to other locations in central and southern New Jersey.
Another idea being considered is building culverts underneath roads in priority locations so that amphibians can cross safely on their own. A feasibility study will be help determine if grants are available to pay the estimated $500,000 per site that it would cost to build culverts.
Why is it so important to save amphibians?
Amphibians are regarded by many scientists as indicators of our ecological health. Harmful environmental changes such as pollutants and higher aquatic temperatures will impact the amphibian population first. And when we see problems with amphibians, it’s just a matter of time before other vertebrates – fish, reptiles, birds and mammals – are affected.
Unfortunately, New Jersey’s amphibians are already in decline, especially those who rely on vernal pools (springtime woodland ponds) for reproduction. Vernal pools are no longer protected by New Jersey’s Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act, since the New Jersey Builders Association prevailed in a lawsuit against the state Department of Environmental Protection.
But it’s great to know that individuals and organizations are lending a hand to ensure the survival of these vulnerable animals. It’s more important than ever to preserve lands with vernal pools, before they get paved for houses, roads and shopping centers!
For more information about volunteering for the amphibian crossing program, visit the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey website at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/protecting/projects/amphibian_crossing.