Right of Way for Wildlife

By Michael J. Caduto

A man was trying to cross the street when he noticed a large SUV bearing down. Each time he stepped into the road to cross, the SUV sped up, and the man stepped back. After this had happened several times, the SUV finally pulled up in front of the man. The window powered down, and the man was astounded to see a squirrel driving the vehicle. The squirrel looked at the man and said, “It’s not as easy as it looks, is it?”

If squirrels could drive, they would have good reason to make humans understand what’s at stake along our roadways. Scientific American estimates that vehicles in the U.S. kill over 350 million vertebrate animals annually. On a global scale, 228 trillion insects are killed by vehicles each year along the world’s 22.5 million miles of roads. Some animals are even being pushed to the brink of extinction by roadkill.

Since 2014, the average time that U.S. drivers spend in their cars each week has risen by 20 minutes. On average, we travel 220 miles per week, or nearly 11,500 miles per year. As a nation, we now spend a grand total of 70 billion hours behind the wheel per year.

This traffic is a deadly threat to wildlife. Young and slow-moving animals, like turtles and salamanders, are especially vulnerable. The time of day and year, as well as weather conditions also contribute to the likelihood of hitting an animal. Many animals are giving birth during the late-winter/early springtime, so their inexperienced babies and juveniles are particularly susceptible to being hit. Nighttime is worst of all because many nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) animals come out in droves. Another extremely dangerous period is when it rains at night, especially following a long dry spell; this is when amphibians move en masse. And cold-blooded animals—like frogs, toads and snakes—like to hang out on warm pavement at dusk, where they all become…well…sitting ducks.

Even though a blanket of snow still covers the ground, March is a good time of year to start strategizing how to prevent animals from getting struck by our vehicles. For example, every springtime people help salamanders achieve safe passage by shepherding them across rural roads. I participated in such a rite along Route 132 while living in Union Village, Vermont. (Lily Pond Road in White River Junction is another salamander crossing hotspot, as is Route 5 near the Upper Valley Aquatic Center.) When the “Big Night” arrives and salamanders begin to move—generally during the first spring rain when the ground thaws and the temperature rises above freezing—salamander guardians gather with raingear, flashlights and sandwich-board signs to warn off approaching motorists. Despite spending cold hours dodging cars racing by, this is a popular annual event in many places. Massachusetts even has a bluegrass group and a lager named Salamander Crossing.

Most salamanders spend the winter hibernating under leaf litter, logs and rocks. When late-winter temperatures rise, the normally reclusive “mole salamanders” that live in our region make a grand vernal entrance, including the Jefferson, spotted and blue-spotted. (The marbled salamander, another member of this group, lays its eggs in autumn.)

If Andy Warhol had been a naturalist, he might have had the spotted salamander in mind when he said that everyone would have their fifteen minutes of fame. For most of the year, spotted salamanders live hidden in moist environments, quietly eating worms, insects, spiders and snails as they creep under logs and leaf litter, along streambanks and even through rodent tunnels. In March to mid-April—when the ground thaws, the temperature rises to about 42°F and we have our first evening of rain or high humidity—spotted salamanders appear by the thousands, with their 6 to 8-inch long, shiny bluish-black bodies and two striking rows of yellow-orange spots meandering down the back.

Spotted salamanders travel up to a quarter-mile to breed in the same vernal pool each year. They often follow the same route and, in places, may even arrive at the pool in a similar order from one breeding season to the next. Some return to the same burrow after breeding. This synchronized march to the breeding pools is even more impressive because, similar to other species, spotted salamanders are mute—devoid of a mating call. But their quiet routine breeds success: spotted salamanders can live for up to twenty years.

In addition to citizen groups that muster springtime road-crossing assistance to salamanders, some aficionados are thinking long-term. Activists in Amherst, Massachusetts built tunnels under a popular salamander crossing. A study by a University of Massachusetts herpetologist revealed that 75% of the salamanders that found the tunnels made it safely to the other side. Vermont’s first road-crossing tunnels for salamanders were created in 2018 in Monkton.

So why does a salamander cross the road? To exercise a 160-million-year-old right-of-way that predates humankind, roads and automobiles. In order to satisfy their drive to procreate, the intrepid salamanders risk everything.

Jenevra Wetmore—Sustainable Woodstock’s Program Director—participates in the annual amphibian crossing event along Route 132 in Strafford, VT, where they shepherded this spotted salamander to safety. Photo Credit: Marya Merriam.

What You Can Do

  • Check out the Vermont Reptile & Amphibian Atlas (www.vtherpatlas.org) and the North Branch Nature Center’s Amphibian Road Crossing Program to learn more and find out how you can report “herp” sightings and support conservation efforts (https://northbranchnaturecenter.org/amphibian-conservation/).
  • Get in touch with the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (https://vinsweb.org/) and Vermont Center for Ecostudies (https://vtecostudies.org/) to learn more about local wildlife and how you can help.
  • Minimize driving at night, especially during and after rainstorms, when many animals are especially mobile, particularly from early springtime through late autumn.
  • If an animal, such as a deer, fox or raccoon, suddenly appears on the side of the road or in front of your vehicle, sound your horn and slow down as safely as you can. Animals don’t seem to realize the threat imposed by a moving vehicle, but many will quickly flee to safety when they hear the blare of your horn.


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