A Spring Salamander’s Eye View of Forest Health

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by David Brynn, VFF Conservation Forester and Executive Director

David Brynn recently updated Vermont Family Forests’ list of optimal conservation practices for working in the forest—what we call our Organic Forest Ecosystem Conservation Checklist. He has amended this checklist many times since its first iteration more than 20 years ago, always with the intent of encouraging practices that nurture forest community health and resilience. His latest tweaks–which increase erosion control by reducing distance between drainage structures and expanding riparian buffer widths– are informed, in part, by his participation in Conserving Vermont’s Amphibians, an in-depth course we’re currently offering through VFF’s Hogback Community College, taught by herpetologist Jim Andrews. 

“A good tinkerer keeps all of the parts.”  Aldo Leopold

Without application, principles and ideals have no bearing or test.” John Dewey

This spring, Dr. Jim Andrews, well known for his role in establishing and stewarding the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Project, is teaching a 4-lecture and 3-field trip course, Conserving Vermont’s Amphibians, through VFF’s Hogback Community College. With the four lectures now under our belts, we have learned the natural histories, geographic ranges, and ways to identify Jefferson, blue-spotted, spotted, northern dusky, northern two-lined, four-toed, eastern red-backed, and spring salamanders, as well as mudpuppies, eastern newts and 11 species of frogs.

My hands-down favorite to date is the spring salamander (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus), described as “a robust, salmon-pink and mottled salamander with distinctive light lines running from the eye to the nostril, that is found mostly in cool, clear streams.” Another reference calls them “agile denizens of cool springs and mountain streams” and points out that their tails are “laterally compressed into a paddle that permits them to cross streams that have swift currents.” 

Spring salamander adult (Gyrinophilus porphyriticus)

Spring salamanders are euryphagic which means they eat a wide variety of foods. They live in water in their larval form for up to four years, eating aquatic insects, crustaceans, centipedes, snails, earthworms, small frogs, and other salamanders, including their own.  

Spring salamanders can be found in mountains as far south as Alabama and Georgia and in the mountains of every New England state.  Their relative abundance is uncommon to rare in New England, except in Vermont, where they’ve been given a state natural heritage rank of S4 (relatively common). They’re most often found where an intact forested canopy shades rocky brooks, seeps, springs, and streams. They appreciate cool, highly oxygenated water, lots of large dead wood, and stable, rich soils of wild, undisturbed forests. 

Spring salamanders are less abundant in streams with brook trout and in disturbed environments. They are rare in streams with heavily logged or polluted stretches. They, like all amphibians, are extremely sensitive to and harmed by glyphosate (Roundup) and other pesticides. Environmental changes associated with sedimentation from roads and logging, residential development, acid rain, and climate change have reduced their range and numbers. 

Conserving high-quality habitat will be essential for wildlife species such as the spring salamander if they are to survive the climate crisis. With that concern in mind, over eighty commoners attended VFF’s Commons Conservation Congress last November, and brainstormed effective conservation strategies here in Vermont’s Center-West Ecoregion, focusing on those natural assets that are unenclosed, unowned, and shared by all—namely air, water, and wildlife. These shared assets, or common-pool resources, are held by all of us. In Vermont, the State serves as the trustee of our air, water, and wildlife, but each of us has the right and responsibility to care for them. When we the people (the commoners) step up to caring for the air, water, and wildlife of our home place, we cultivate a healthy, vital commons.

During the Congress, keynote speaker Eric Sorenson, wildlife ecologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, described how the Vermont Conservation Design mapping tool can be used to identify highest priority habitats in order to conserve a resilient Vermont landscape. In breakout sessions, participants brainstormed effective ways to make this happen. In every session, citizen/commoner monitoring emerged as a key action.

Very close to the epicenter of the Center-West Ecoregion is the 1600-acre Isham Brook watershed. Isham Brook is a third-order, cold, clear mountain stream that is located entirely in the Town of Lincoln and feeds directly into the New Haven River.  Vermont Family Forests has held over 400 forested acres in the Isham Brook watershed since 2016, when we acquired four parcels of land—three of which are located in Lincoln and one in Bristol—that had been conserved by Lester and Monique Anderson with a forever-wild conservation easement held by Northeast Wilderness Trust. It is not known if spring salamanders inhabit this watershed, but it is hoped by this commoner and watershed resident that they do!

Spring salamanders live in this healthy mountain stream.

According to the Vermont Conservation Design, there are roughly ten miles of Highest Priority Surface Waters and Riparian Areas in the Isham Brook Watershed. Most of the watershed is forested. While some of these forests are conserved as forever-wild, many are periodically managed for timber. Large areas of the forest were salvaged after the October 2017 windstorm that blew over hundreds of trees. In addition to private forest access trails, there are over five miles of town roads and many additional miles of driveways in this watershed. If there are spring salamanders in the Isham Brook catchment, sedimentation from roads could be the primary negative impact on their habitat. Monitoring will help us assess this.

Monitoring of the watershed could take various forms. One could be to monitor water quality of the Isham Brook at two bridge crossings. Water quality is an excellent indicator of forest ecosystem health in general and is an indirect indicator of carbon storage and wildlife species richness. Data could be gathered on in-stream phosphorus, suspended sediment, peak flows, turbidity, temperature, pH, and E. coli

Another approach to monitoring would be to assess compliance of the watershed’s access road networks and forest vegetation conditions with VFF’s Organic Forest Ecosystem Conservation Checklist. Indirect assessments of Best Management Practices have been shown to be very effective indicators of forest ecosystem health.

A third monitoring strategy would be to use bioindicators such as stream macroinvertebrates, fish, and amphibians. Assessing the presence and extent of spring salamander populations in the Isham Brook watershed would be of interest to this wanna-be herpetologist. I plan on checking in with Professor Andrews about that. Stay tuned!