Fish and Wildlife Service looks to add West Virginia spring salamander to endangered species list

By Autumn Shelton, RealWV

GREENBRIER COUNTY, W.Va. – West Virginia’s spring salamander may be in danger of extinction, and public input is needed to help increase their chances of survival. 

On Dec, 20, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced they were accepting public comments as part of their proposal to have the West Virginia spring salamander listed as an endangered species and to name their 2.2 mile habitat as “critical” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

The West Virginia spring salamander is a unique little amphibian. It can only be found in one location in the world – the General Davis Cave located in Greenbrier County – where it has been able to live and reproduce in near isolation for possibly thousands of years. However, due to human interference, as well as ecological disturbances, their population is estimated to be in decline. 

Location of the General Davis Cave from “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Endangered Species Status for West Virginia Spring Salamander and Designation of Critical Habitat.”

According to information published in the Federal Register by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior, the West Virginia spring salamander is a “single-site” native of the General Davis Cave, with a “restricted range that supports a small population with limited genetic diversity.”

Unfortunately, scientific species collection in the 1970s and ‘80s as well as the recent increase in major flood events, may have threatened the salamander’s already limited population and their ultimate survival. 

Although human collection is “no longer a threat,” to the West Virginia spring salamander due to restrictions placed on human activity, researchers have found that flooding of the General Davis Cave remains a major threat. 

Information presented in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report states “there have been 17 catastrophic flood events across West Virginia since record keeping began in 1844; six of these have occurred in the Greenbrier River watershed where the General Davis Cave is located.”

The most recent major flood event in Greenbrier County, as reported by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, occurred in 2016. 

Following the 2016 flood, debris and mud were “observed on the cave ceiling, on stalactites, and well above stream elevation,” indicating that the entire cave had been filled with flood water, the report states. “This increased frequency of recent major flood events, combined with the rising level of peak flows for the Greenbrier River at Alderson, indicates that major flood events are increasing in both frequency and intensity in the area, as is predicted with most climate change models.”

These flood events may sweep the salamanders out of the cave, displacing them to an area with fewer resources; compromise food sources and escape covers; and eliminate areas where the salamander would deposit their eggs, according to the report. 

The West Virginia spring salamander has already been listed as a Priority 1 (S1) Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Wildlife Action Plan. 

In 1981, the Nature Conservancy, who owns a conservation easement at the cave’s passage, installed a gate to restrict entry, the report continues. 

The southern surface area of the cave has been privately owned by one family for over 200 years, while the northern surface area of the cave is owned by a private timber company, the report notes. There are currently no federal protections for the cave, however it has been used as a wintering colony of the federally endangered Indiana bat, which provides some protection for the salamander during the Indiana bat’s hibernation season from Nov. 15 – Mar. 31. 

A West Virginia state law protects the cave’s habitat, making it illegal for any person to disturb the cave, unless they have written consent. It is also illegal to possess a West Virginia spring salamander. 

Population trends from “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Endangered Species Status for West Virginia Spring Salamander and Designation of Critical Habitat.” 

The report stresses that due to “past collection for scientific purposes,” the “increased magnitude of major flood events,” and small population size of the West Virginia spring salamander, it has been determined that they are “in danger of extinction.”

In order to finalize their proposal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking public comment from the scientific community, government agencies and other interested parties concerning the proposed rule. 

“Please note that submissions merely stating support for, or opposition to, the action under consideration without providing supporting information, although noted, does not provide substantial information necessary to support a determination,” the report states. 

Instead, they ask that comments include “specific scientific and commercial data,” including information from scientific journals and other publications.

For a complete list of information that may be included with a submission, and for information on how to submit a comment, click here, or visit https://www.regulations.gov and enter document number FWS–R5–ES–2023–0179 in the search bar, or search for “West Virginia spring salamander.” 

Comments will be accepted until Feb. 20, 2024. 

Should the West Virginia spring salamander be listed as an endangered species, federal funding would become available to help in recovery efforts, as would funding from other sources such as academic and non-governmental organizations. 

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