Rare Appalachian salamander moves closer to endangered species protection
Published 10:45 am Thursday, January 25, 2024
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that it would consider protecting the yellow-spotted woodland salamander under the Endangered Species Act. The agency now has 12 months to decide whether to protect the salamander, which only lives in an Appalachian rock outcrops targeted by coal mining.
“This decision is an important first step for these salamanders, which are one of the most endangered species on the planet,” said Will Harlan, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “I hope the Fish and Wildlife Service moves quickly to give these beleaguered little animals the protections they urgently need.”
Yellow-spotted woodland salamanders are found in shale and sandstone rock faces in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The same sites are targeted by mountaintop removal mining, which uses explosives that blast apart mountains to access coal seams. More than 500 mountains and 1.4 million acres of forest in Appalachia have been destroyed by mountaintop removal mining over the past 40 years.
Three known yellow-spotted woodland salamander populations have already been wiped out by mining and road construction in the past decade. Many others have likely been obliterated by mountaintop removal mining. Most remaining yellow-spotted woodland salamander populations consist of only one or a few individuals.
This slender, purplish-brown lungless salamander is distinguished by two rows of yellow spots along its back. Two genetic studies in 2018 and 2019 confirmed that the yellow-spotted woodland salamander is a distinct species.
In August 2022 the Center and its partners petitioned to list the yellow-spotted woodland salamander under the Endangered Species Act. Today the Service issued a 90-day finding that the yellow-spotted woodland salamander may warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. With this finding, the Service will now launch a formal status assessment to guide its decision in 12 months about whether to protect the species.
Full protection as an endangered species would ensure that yellow-spotted woodland salamanders and their remaining habitat are safeguarded. It would also require a federal recovery plan to restore their populations.
Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Appalachian Voices, Citizens Coal Council, The Clinch Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch, Dogwood Alliance, Forest Keeper, Heartwood, Kentucky Heartwood and Kentucky Waterways Alliance joined the Center in petitioning to list the species.
Appalachia is a global biodiversity hotspot for salamanders, with more salamander species than anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, 60% of salamander species are threatened with extinction, including the yellow-spotted woodland salamander.
“These salamanders have been clinging to Appalachian rocks for millions of years, but we’ve nearly wiped them out in just a few decades,” said Harlan. “To keep hanging on, they urgently need Endangered Species Act protections.”