Special on Tiger Salamander: $13,636/lb.


Most people are familiar with the concept of a snipe hunt, but few of us have ever actually rummaged about the weeds in a campground, armed with only a flashlight and a paper sack, attempting to nab one of the elusive little critters.

The California Tiger Salamander. Not exactly priceless, but close.

I’ll have mine rare.

The existence of the snipe is often questioned by skeptics, but it actually does exist. This perky little shorebird never appears inland, and is impossible to bag, except by the most skilled snipe-callers.

But Cotati, CA  has its own far more expensive version of the snipe: The California Tiger Salamander, which is officially classified as an endangered species by the Federal government. More about this endearing amphibian in a minute.  But first, some background on another endangered species in the neighborhood: The U.S. Dollar.

Because of the drastic reduction in local property values and property taxes, the Rancho Adobe Fire District had a deficit of $177,000 in 2012, with things looking worse for 2013. Since they couldn’t get enough voters to approve a small increase in their property tax by voting for Measure Z, the district was forced to close one of their three stations every day.

And we know the problem with Sonoma County roads, all 1,382 miles of them. It’s estimated there’s a $120 million road maintenance backlog today, and that over 700 miles of our roads are in failed or failing condition.

Then there’s Sonoma County’s unfunded pension liability, the state’s still honking huge deficit, and the $16.4 Trillion national debt. The sad fact is that every government between here and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is in worse financial shape than a waitress who was counting on a nice tip from Tiger Woods.

Now back to the salamander. With a little help from Wikipedia, here’s what I know: The California Tiger Salamander is an eight-inch amphibian. They’re about as reclusive as Howard Hughes. Adults spend the majority of their lives underground, usually in gopher holes. They depend on vernal pools for reproduction, so about the only time they are seen is when they pop out on rainy winter nights to breed.

“Salamanders’ tunnel to Cotati breeding grounds a success.”  

We had some rainy winter nights a few weeks ago, and one of the results was the headline from the local daily immediately above. What tunnel were they talking about? What breeding grounds?  It seems that two years ago, the county built a 35-foot long, 10-inch diameter tunnel beneath Stony Point Road, so the salamanders could cross the road from the gopher holes on the uphill side of Stony Point,  where they live year-round, to the puddles on the downhill side of Stony Point, where they migrate on rainy nights to get their salamander on. The cost? $150,000 from a Caltrans fund, which means it was actually paid for by you and me.

Of course, that’s just one tab the salamander sticks us with.   In 2005, the U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that putting the salamander on the endangered species list would cost $336 million in mitigation and administrative costs over 20 years in Sonoma County, and would set every housing and commercial construction permit application back at least two years. (Unless, of course, it involves a casino.)

So why not just let the salamanders cross the road, like chickens have done since the invention of the corny joke? According to an environmental specialist for the Sonoma County Water Agency, crossing the road was a “blood bath” for salamanders that were getting pulped by SUVs, pickups, and even Priuses. This raises the question of just how endangered they really are, if there are enough  salamanders out there to turn the road red with blood.

But anyway, the tunnels were built, complete with foot-high plastic fencing that fans out in a funnel shape to herd them into the ten-inch pipe. Just to give nature some extra help, a group of well-meaning folks went out in the rain with their flashlights, picked up the salamanders, and pointed their cute green faces toward the tunnel. Sounds kind of like a snipe hunt, but with a lot more snipe around. It is reported that they helped as many as a hundred amphibians into the secret salamander tunnel. If a bunch of volunteers could find that many salamanders that easily, it makes me wonder again just how rare they are.

So what is the real salamander population?  Are they next to extinct or doing just fine?  That’s the $150,000 question. Even expert biologists, who have studied the subject in college for years and in the mud for years more, can only guess. But let’s assume there are a hundred of these cute little creatures in the vicinity of Stony Point Road.  An adult weighs 50 grams, or about an ounce and three-quarters.  That’s 11 pounds of salamander. Divide that into $150,000, and we learn that in a county where thousands of people are receiving food stamps, salamander goes for $13,636  a pound.

Next rainy night, when the spotted amphibians make a rare guest appearance, I hope the local frogs, skunks, garter snakes and ground squirrels appreciate what an expensive treat they’re enjoying.

Photo:Natalie McNear/flickr

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