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Salamander Brigade - Harris Center for Conservation Education

2020 Josh's Frogs Amphibian Conservation Grant Winner - $500

The Harris Center for Conservation Education was one of our 2020 Amphibian Conservation Grant winners. Here, Zach interviews Brett Amy Thelen, the Science Director of The Harris Center, concerning the impact the grant will have on their project.

    1. What specifically do you plan on using the grant money for?

    The Salamander Crossing Brigade program is a grassroots effort with fairly low equipment costs. We do provide ""Salamander Crossing"" signs, traffic cones, and reflective vests for some of our crossing sites, and have to print data forms, volunteer handbooks, and flyers each year, but the majority of our expenses are related to staff time. Though we rely on our network of dedicated citizen scientists (we have up to 250 active volunteers in any given salamander season!), a project of this size requires paid staff for volunteer training, coordination, and communications; collaboration with local municipalities on amphibian-related road closures; data management, interpretation, and sharing; and community outreach. This grant money will be put towards a new part-time Staff Ecologist position, which will provide key support for data management, volunteer coordination, and other aspects of this popular citizen science project.

    2. What does winning this grant allow you to do that you might not have otherwise?

    For more than a decade, our Salamander Crossing Brigade program had been managed by a single staff person. However, the program has grown considerably during that time – more volunteers, more field sites, more amphibians. One aspect that has required increased staff involvement over the past few years, and which has the potential for significant protection of local migratory amphibian populations, is the ""amphibian detour"" project. In 2018, we began working closely with the City of Keene to close a major amphibian crossing site to vehicle traffic on migration nights; to our knowledge, this is the first time a road had been closed to ensure safe passage for amphibians anywhere in the state of New Hampshire. The City has now agreed to close that site annually on ""Big Nights,"" and is working with us on a plan to expand the amphibian road closures to a second site. We have also initiated discussions on the potential for a similar road closure in another nearby town. These road closures require close planning, communications, and collaboration with City staff and leaders, from the Department of Public Works to the Police Department to the City Council. Many meetings and discussions have gone into each one! Although this grant won't cover the full cost of hiring a part-time Staff Ecologist to help run the Crossing Brigades and amphibian road closures, it will get us that much closer.

    3. When do you expect to see results from this? What are you hoping they look like?

    Our field season typically runs from March through mid-May each year. We will be applying the Josh's Frogs funds to the 2021 season, and should be able to provide a report by the end of May 2021. Although the number of amphibians crossed each year depends on many factors, including some that are out of our control (like when and how long it rains), we're hoping that the 2021 salamander season will result in increased volunteer involvement, a growing number of crossed critters, and successful amphibian road closures at two or more crossing sites.

    4. How will this impact amphibian conservation specific to this instance?

    We know from being out on the road on ""Big Nights"" that it doesn't take a lot of cars to do a lot of damage. A single vehicle can kill dozens of amphibians in one trip, without the driver even realizing it. So, in a very specific, tangible, and hands-on way, this project results in thousands of amphibians surviving to breed another year, every year. In any given spring, our volunteers cross 3,000 - 7,000 amphibians of up to 14 different species, including several that are of conservation concern in our state.

    5. What are the larger implications of your work?

    We know we can’t carry every frog across every road. That is not a sustainable solution to the issue of amphibian road mortality. However, the data collected by our citizen scientists can lead to longer-term solutions. In 2008, the City of Keene purchased land – previously slated for development – to protect a migratory amphibian corridor that was documented by our volunteers. Ten years later, we worked closely with City officials to close that crossing site to vehicle traffic on migration nights. As time goes on, the data our volunteers collect could be used for land conservation or road improvement projects that protect amphibians in other places, too.

    The Brigades also serve as a powerful, hands-on environmental education experience for people of all ages. Many of our volunteers embrace the Brigades as a spring tradition and return, like the salamanders, year after year. We know of several alums of our program who have gone on to start their own Crossing Brigade efforts in other places, and one local parent wrote us to say that her 11-year-old son has “expressed interest in the field of conservation, and said that when he is older he will credit the crossings as ‘where he got his start.’"" Here are a few other quotes from volunteers over the years that illustrate the larger impacts of participating in the Crossing Brigades:

    I was 44 years old before I learned these amphibians existed. I am so happy to be part of the growing movement to help them, do a small part as a citizen scientist, and educate others about the migrations.

    [It] gets to the heart of why we keep doing field work in sometimes miserable conditions: it's important for the earth; it feels really good to be doing something positive; and it's a hoot to know there are other slimy-fingered loonies out there in the middle of the night sharing the thrills and the heartaches.My son and I wouldn't miss it. . . . It's like stepping into another world.
    Once you get to hold the salamanders and look into their faces, you get hooked...You hold this creature in your hand and you say, ‘Wow.’My daughter, who is 9, talked about the migration all year and has photos of herself helping last year on her bedroom bulletin board. Participating is very special and meaningful to her.

    6. What message or information would you like to share with the reptile and amphibian pet community?

    One of my big messages for anyone who lives in North America and wants to help amphibians is: don't drive on warm, rainy nights in spring and summer! Although our project is focused on the spring amphibian migration, warm-weather frogs and toads are out and about on roads near water on rainy nights all summer long, and road mortality is a serious conservation concern for herps. If you've got an errand to run and it's a warm, rainy night, ask yourself if it can wait. You could save the lives of dozens of amphibians just by staying home.
    Every year, I hear from folks who don't live in southwest New Hampshire but want to help out with the Salamander Brigades, so I've started keeping a list of all the amphibian crossing programs I know about in the northeastern U.S. There are a lot of us! So, if this is something that interests you, check out and see if you can find a program close to home.

    Lastly, as someone who works for a land trust and believes deeply in land conservation, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that we'd have no wildlife without wildlife habitat. One of the best things you can do to ensure a future for wild herps is to support your local, regional, or statewide land trust.

    7. How would someone make a donation to your organization? can write in ""Salamander Crossing Brigades"" if you specifically want to support this project, but all donations will go towards land protection, environmental education, and conservation research, and are very gratefully received.

    8. Where could someone learn more about your project?
    There is lots of info nested on that site! Volunteer materials, field reports, in-season salamander forecasts, a great FAQ.

    9. Anything else you feel we should know or discuss? 

    I can't think of anything off the top of my head, but I'd be happy to answer any questions that arose for you after reading my answers. I also want to reiterate how grateful we are to be chosen for this grant.

    Brett Amy Thelen is the Science Director for the Harris Center for Conservation Education, and has been coordinating citizen science programming for nearly fifteen years. She received her M.S. in Environmental Studies: Conservation Biology from Antioch University New England. Prior to her graduate work, she conducted all manner of ecological field research at Cape Cod National Seashore and received her B.A. in Literary & Cultural Studies from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. In addition to her work with the Harris Center, Brett teaches coastal ecology for Franklin Pierce University and writes for Northern Woodlands magazine.

    This is part of our Josh's Frogs Conservation Initiatives, where we work to pair the success of species in captivity with their success in the wild. To read more about our conservation efforts, click here.

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