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‘Newt Brigade’ shuttles salamanders to safety

On a ribbon of road in West Marin, on wet winter nights when darkness comes early, a herd of determined amphibians gather together to cross to the breeding lake from which they once came.

Laguna Lake is a shallow natural body of water straddling the border between Sonoma and Marin counties. Half a mile wide and two miles long in the wet season, the lake is a birthing ground for the Taricha torso, or California newt, a slow-moving, red-bellied, big-eyed amphibian. Hardwired with the unfailing GPS endowed them by Mother Nature, the newts are compelled to travel back to the lake to spawn.

But odds are against them making it safely across Chileno Valley Road: in the winter of 2019, for instance, 41 percent of them died trying.

Enter the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade (CVNB), a small group of citizen scientists who’ve made it their mission to protect the critters from oncoming cars. Founded by a woman named Sally Gale who was chastened by the particularly grisly newt carnage of 2019, the brigade’s mission is simply to help move as many of the animals as they can from one side of the road to the other.

Working in two-hour shifts on a narrow stretch of roadway, often as not in cold and wet weather, the 50 volunteers of CVNB use flashlights to stun the animals, which instinctively freeze when confronted with light. Each newt is photographed next to a copper penny for scale, and then picked up at the midsection to be ferried safely across.

‘My wife sent me the email saying the Newt Brigade was looking for volunteers. I looked at it and said, “This is so bizarre. How can I pass it up?’” Bo Kearns, Chileno Valley Newt Brigade volunteer

For volunteer Bo Kearns, this singular moment of man-to-amphibian contact was enough for him to fall a little bit in love. “I picked him up at the midsection and held him up to my face,” the Glen Ellen resident said of the first newt he rescued. “The bright orange underbelly, the soulful eyes and little grin, his little arms and little fingers… I was like ‘wow.’ I took it over and set it on the grass and just as soon as I did that, a car zipped by behind us. I was hooked.”

Kearns and the other volunteers work in rotation over the four winter months that are the breeding and birthing season for California newts. “We try to have somebody out there every night between about 5 and 10 p.m.,” Kearns said. “We’ve learned there are big nights, when the temperature is around 55 degrees and the rain is warm.”

On those nights, and all the other nights of breeding season, too, 12 to 14 people turn up for the newt rodeo on Chilleno Valley Road. Kearns commutes to his assignment from Glen Ellen. “My wife sent me the email saying the Newt Brigade was looking for volunteers,” he said, recalling how he became involved. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is so bizarre. How can I pass it up?’”

The volunteers collect pertinent data and snap georeferenced photos and then upload it all to iNaturalist, an ecology app that harnesses volunteer effort to track various animal and plant species.

From December 2018 through February 2019, 1,434 newts were cataloged on Chileno Valley Road. More than 800 of them were alive but 595 were dead, underscoring the devastating effects on animal habitats fragmented by human-made roads.

Taricha torso is a native newt species. With their permeable skin and lifecycles that include both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, newts are considered to be an “indicator“ species. Their survival or decline is an environmental harbinger from which other species’ relative health can be predicted. “They are dying out because of climate change, like amphibians all over the world,” Kearns said. “Newts have been here for thousands of years. They eat pests — like the larvae of mosquitos —and transport the nutrients of the water back to the soil.”

Maintaining ecological balance in Sonoma County depends, at least in part, on the continued health of its newt population.

There are some local breeding grounds where newts are thriving, Kearns said, at Bouverie Preserve, Spring Lake, and other sites with accessible year-round water sources. But in Southern California newts are threatened with extinction due to dry conditions and overpopulation.

The volunteers of the Newt Brigade realize that a more permanent solution is needed on Chileno Valley Road. The catch and release of individual newts lowered the mortality rate to around 30 percent in 2020, but Kearns and his compatriots hope to do better still. They are studying several more permanent science-based solutions, including the possibility of a tunnel or culvert that would allow the creatures safe access to the lake across the street from their woodland habitats, and fundraising to pay for a formal feasibility study. If the Chileno Valley newts lives’ weren’t being foreshortened by cars, they could be expected to live 30 years.

The local ranchers who live and work along Chileno Valley Road were initially confounded by the teams of men and women running around after dark. “When we first appeared at night with flashlights on this country road, they must have thought we were aliens,” Kearns said. But soon enough even hard-bitten cowboy types expressed interest in the brigade. “We had one local pull off and ask, ‘What are you guys looking for, mushrooms?’ We told him we were looking for newts, and he said, ‘What’s a newt?’ I gave him the newt tutorial and he was pretty impressed. Now he’s one of our volunteers,” Kearns said.

Newt rescue is perhaps a small thing in a world rife with large and serious problems. But it’s a problem with actionable, straightforward solutions, and a handful of people with hearts large enough to find them.

Kearns, for one, feels that he’s found a new tribe.

“I thought I might be the only one crazy enough to do this, but I found out hey! There’s a lot of kindred spirits.”

Contact Kate Williams at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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