ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A rare salamander found only in northern New Mexico would be added to the federal endangered species list under a proposal unveiled Tuesday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The plan highlights questions about how many Jemez Mountain salamanders still exist following back-to-back years of wildfire, drought and other changes to their moist, forested habitat.
Researchers with the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and The Nature Conservancy spent the last three weeks in the Jemez Mountains using a team of specially trained dogs to sniff out populations of the salamanders in an effort to learn more about what makes them tick.
"Salamanders are ancient creatures, but we don't know if they've been in the Jemez Mountains for 10,000 years or 100,000 years," said Anne Bradley, forest conservation program manager for The Nature Conservancy.
"We don't really know what kind of environments the salamander has experienced over its evolutionary history to know how it is adapting to these changes that we're seeing now," she said.
Dependent on moisture in the air and soil, the salamanders breathe through their skin and spend much of their lives underground.
One of the chief threats facing the lung-less amphibian is the combination of an overgrown forest and the likelihood of severe wildfire, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While the salamander has evolved over centuries with low-intensity fire, the waves of fast-moving, intense fires that have charred tens of millions of acres in the West over the last decade is a problem.
Biologists say that between 1995 and 2010, severe fires have burned more than one-third of known salamander habitat on national forest lands.
In 2011, the Las Conchas Fire burned nearly 18,000 acres of salamander habitat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points to fire restoration, logging, grazing, roads, trails and recreation as other threats to the salamander.
Aside from the proposed listing, the agency is suggesting setting aside more than 140 square miles in three New Mexico counties as critical habitat for the salamander.
The agency will make a final decision on the salamander following a 60-day comment period.
Environmentalists have been pushing for salamander protections for more than two decades.
Whether they're hiding under decaying logs or snuggled deep in underground crevices, they're difficult for human surveyors to find. That's where the dogs — Frehley and Sampson — come in.
The dogs are among 12 that were rescued from animal shelters and trained by handlers at the Center for Conservation Biology. They're much more efficient at covering more ground and searching for such elusive creatures. Their species conservation missions have taken them from the San Juan Islands to Brazil, Cambodia and now northern New Mexico.
"It was awe inspiring to see how these animals interact with their world," Bradley said of the expert sniffers. "We aren't oriented around our noses so you don't realize what kind of sensitivity that they have until you get a chance to experience it."
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