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Eco-passage sees success ahead of salamander use

March 23, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Zachary Roman

Last spring, plans to help out endangered Jefferson salamanders in and around Caledon were set in motion.

On Mar. 25, 2022, Ontario Streams announced it had received a grant of $81,807 to construct an eco-passage for Jefferson salamanders, as well as to do work restoring the salamanders’ habitat. 

Ontario Streams is a charity dedicated to the conservation and rehabilitation of Ontario stream, river and wetland habitats.

As of late September 2022, Ontario Streams’ grant-funded work was complete. Now, local conservationists are looking forward to tracking Jefferson salamanders to see just how much the new eco-passage and habitat restoration will help the amphibians’ population. Jefferson salamanders were deemed threatened when Ontario’s Endangered Species Act came into effect in 2008.

In 2011, the salamanders were reassessed and determined to be endangered.

Mark Heaton, Senior Biologist with Ontario Streams, explained once required permits were received for the eco-passage, Ontario Streams and the Town of Caledon issued a request for proposals to build the eco-passage.

About $30,000 was budgeted for the eco-passage, and two companies submitted their proposals. The only problem? Both companies wanted to charge over $100,000. An eco-passage consists of fencing next to a road that smaller animals cannot get past. They’re then forced to walk along the fencing until they find a culvert which allows them to pass under the road safely.

“When you look at the expense of the project in terms of materials, you kind of scratch your head,” said Heaton of the lofty quotes. “We had a nice chat with the Town of Caledon officials and agreed that we can do this together with their resources.”

So, the construction of the eco-passage ended up being done by an unlikely source: the Town of Caledon’s Roads and Operations staff.

“They were pretty amazing,” said Heaton, who credited former Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson as well as Caledon’s engineering department for helping to move the project forward. “We were done within five working days. The Town brought in machines, dump trucks… four staff were out there every day. We worked together to build this and it turned out really good.”

The project came in a little under budget too, at around $29,000. By the time the eco-passage was complete in 2022, it was too late in the season for salamanders to be using it. However, preliminary monitoring of the passage with wildlife cameras has shown rabbits, squirrels, mice, and ermines all using it, a nice bonus. 

“These animals… can easily navigate overtop,” said Heaton. “But they choose to use the tunnel.”

The preliminary monitoring has shown that the design of the passage is working as intended, and the passage has also proven itself to be snow plow-proof as it was designed to be. Heaton expects to start seeing salamanders use the new eco-passage in mid-April. 

“There won’t be much movement until the snow is off the ground and nighttime temperatures are three or four degrees celsius,” he explained.

Conservationists will use wildlife cameras and in-person studies to monitor the new passage.

The other part of Ontario Streams’ project was habitat restoration work, and five salamander breeding ponds were targeted last year for restoration. The first step was the addition of twig bundles with twigs no more than three millimetres in diameter. These twigs serve as egg-laying sites for Jefferson Salamanders.

“They grip the twig with their back feet like a bird perching on a branch… they use that to track along and lay the egg mass,” said Heaton. “We put in twig bundles in a number of these ponds last spring and lo and behold they were like magnets. The next day there were a bunch of egg masses on the twigs you’d put in the day before.”

Another example of work done was increasing depth of breeding ponds with hand tools. A breeding pond needs to have a depth of about a metre in the spring, otherwise it might dry out before a salamander enters the terrestrial stage of its life cycle in the summer.

One strategy to increase the viability of a breeding pond is to create a metre-deep micro-refuge so there’s always a deep spot in a pond for salamanders to go to.

Ontario Streams also planted over 600 wetland shrubs which provide shade for breeding ponds. The shrubs also generate more twigs of the correct size for egg-laying. 

Conservationists will be checking in on the restored breeding ponds this year to see how they are doing. Heaton said conditions this spring should be better than last spring as more snow accumulated over the course of this past winter than the one prior.



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