Saving Salamanders

Mt. Lyell salamander,  Hydromantes platycephalus , Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, August 2017

Mt. Lyell salamander, Hydromantes platycephalus, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, August 2017

Conservation biology has long been held as a crisis discipline. We work hard for modest gains, and setbacks are the norm. But every once in awhile, evidence that blood, sweat, and tears expended for the perpetuation of Earth’s biodiversity effects positive change, and that is worth celebrating.

From 2008 to 2015, I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During my last year with the agency, and because of my dissertation research on amphibian disease and my years of regulatory experience with an endangered salamander species, I was asked to join a team of agency scientists to write a Lacey Act rule that would list certain salamander species as injurious.

This was a necessary step because a new, highly deadly fungus had just been discovered. This fungus (Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal) had laid waste to a salamander species in the Netherlands, and it was--and still is--spreading. As a nation, the U.S. is home to the greatest number of salamander species on the planet. If Bsal arrives here, it could result in the next amphibian apocalypse. The director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the time, Dan Ashe, was inundated with phone calls, emails, letters, and social media posts asking him to do something to protect U.S. salamanders from a Bsal invasion. What ensued was one of the most rapid actions by the agency I’ve ever witnessed.

Dan Ashe told his staff to make it happen—and we did. Our team was assembled with fisheries and disease biologists, an economist, Lacey Act experts, and an expert on disease in amphibian trade. We had strict, short deadlines. Because we were working from different locations across the country, we had regular conference calls to monitor our progress. The work was given top priority over other projects. My colleagues and I cancelled vacations and worked long hours to pull it together.

On January 13, 2016, the Service published the Lacey Act rule, listing 201 salamander species as injurious. The rule bans the importation and interstate transport of these species, which, it was hoped, would stop or slow the spread of Bsal.

The effort was lauded by conservation groups. The agency braced for backlash from the amphibian pet trade industry, but none came. Salamander keepers generally thought the rule was a good idea, and some even capitalized on the opportunity to start marketing their salamanders as “Bsal free”.

The rule is a start, but will it work? Some think it is only a matter of time before Bsal makes it past U.S. borders anyway. This may be; but this week, a report published in Nature revealed that as of yet, no Bsal has been found in captive U.S. populations, and credits the Lacey Act rule with this good news. The researchers received over 600 swab samples of 65 species by mail from captive salamander owners. According to the report, the Lacey Act rule reduced captive salamander imports to the U.S. by over 98%, significantly reducing the risk of Bsal spread. This is big news, even to those who don’t necessarily follow amphibian disease trends like I do.

There is still more work to be done. Agencies and research groups continue to monitor for Bsal in the wild so that they can try to stem the tide if and when Bsal arrives. In the meantime, the support for the Lacey Act rule has been overwhelmingly positive. For an agency whose actions are continuously being litigated by those who think that the agency is regulating too much, and conservation groups who think that the agency is regulating too little, the public support for the Lacey Act rule is nothing short of groundbreaking. Thank you, Dan Ashe, and thank you to all of the individuals and conservation organizations that spoke up and requested action be taken on behalf of our nation’s amphibians.