The rare green salamander only lives in a few small areas of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and is usually active at night or in the moist, misty twilight hours when it breathes best. Camouflaged by a flat, black body and speckled yellow or green markings, it blends in with mossy trees, logs and lichen-covered rocks with tight crevices that allow it to keep away from predators.
Wildlife biologists have found green salamanders living mostly in two distinct patches of Western North Carolina — on the county line along Transylvania and Henderson counties and along the southern region of Macon, Jackson and Transylvania counties.
While efforts to protect the green salamander continue, pending federal legislation could decide the fate of this delicate creature — and many other species not yet endangered — when Congress convenes this fall to work on the 2007 federal budget.
Under debate is how much money Congress will approve for the State Wildlife Grants, a program begun in 2001 that helps protect endangered species, educate the public about wildlife, and support conservation efforts to prevent wildlife from becoming endangered. Since 2001, $407 million has been approved for State Wildlife Grants — $8.7 million of that going to North Carolina. Funding is based on the size and population of each state. This year, North Carolina received approximately $1.4 million in State Wildlife Grants. The money helps to pay for biologists to go into habitats and see where wildlife lives and how populations are doing.
However, this year proposed bills in Congress show vastly different figures for this program. While the President’s budget called for $74.7 million, the Senate’s version was $67.5 million and the House of Representatives bill suggested $50 million, according to North Carolina’s Teaming with Wildlife Coalition.
Rep. Charles Taylor (R-Brevard) happens to be the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing funding for the Department of the Interior, so he’s seen as a key voice in determining whether favorable funding for wildlife programs goes into the final budget.
“He is our man,” says Chris North, coordinator for the North Carolina Teaming with Wildlife Coalition. In the past, Taylor has been a big supporter of the wildlife funding and the program enjoys bipartisan support in Washington, D.C. However, North adds, wildlife advocates continue to push for funding each year, and this year the goal is to get the House bill’s funding up to the level of the Senate bill.
While the State Wildlife Grant program helps protect endangered species — and more importantly endangered habitats — it mostly pays for biologists who catalog and identify many other kinds of wildlife that are not listed as endangered species.
The State Wildlife Grants is the nation’s core program for preventing wildlife from becoming endangered in every state, according to North, who also works for the N.C. Wildlife Federation.
If you laid out all the different types of wildlife on a continuum with big game animals like deer and fish on one side and rare, endangered species on the other end, North explains, about 90 percent of the remaining species are in the middle and don’t tend to receive as much public funding and attention. However, since protecting endangered species takes a good deal of taxpayer money, making sure a species doesn’t get listed can mean saving tax dollars in the future.
To ensure federal dollars are put to good use, states were charged with developing wildlife action plans that give accurate accounts of what species are out there, where they live, and what their populations are. Since its inception, the State Wildlife Grants program has hired 27 biologists in North Carolina to work with citizens, landowners, land trusts and other agencies and learn more about what’s living in various habitats.
After all, how can you protect a species if you don’t know it’s endangered?
“There’s a lot we don’t know,” says North.
That’s the challenge for Jeff Schwierjohann of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and supervisor for wildlife diversity in the mountain region of the state. Schwierjohann collaborates with three other biologists based in Buncombe County to keep a close watch on state-listed endangered species like the green salamander, northern flying squirrel, and peregrine falcon. The team also catalogs all sorts of other wildlife throughout Western North Carolina.
“Our biggest goal, of course, is to keep common species common,” Schwierjohann says, repeating an important catch phrase for wildlife biologists. Based on the population of a given species, biologists can determine whether it needs to be listed as endangered, delisted or of special concern to prevent it from becoming endangered.
It’s important to note that a single species shouldn’t be taken out of context from its habitat, Schwierjohann explains. Ultimately, it’s not just the species that’s in jeopardy; it’s the loss of habitat or the effects on a given habitat that threatens a species into becoming endangered.
Schwierjohann’s team works in a vast stretch of land from Winston-Salem to the Tennessee border. Sometimes, the work is seasonal and focused — that is, looking for green salamanders in the fall, checking a thousand northern flying squirrel nest boxes December through March, watching for peregrine falcons in February or for songbirds in April. But all the while, the search for one type of species may lead to discovering many others, so the biologists don’t have blinders on when they go into the woods, streams and fields.
“We’re doing a million things at once in the spring and summer,” Schwierjohann says. “The scope of what we do is so massive.”
And in their searches, sometimes they find a rare species may not be as rare as once thought. The green salamanders, for example, are being found in more pockets.
“We’re starting to find a lot more populations out there,” Schwierjohann says.
But again, it’s hard to know if a species needs protecting unless biologists are out there looking and listing on a regular basis.