Following a Feb. 26 settlement agreement between the Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must propose a revised critical habitat designation rule for the Salado salamander and the Georgetown salamander by Aug. 12.
Following publication of the proposed critical habitat designation in the Federal Register, the USFWS must publish the final critical habitat designation rule for the Salado and Georgetown salamanders.
In the meantime, it is time for local entities to get busy. Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater Underground Conservation District spoke to Village of Salado aldermen about the likely critical habitat area that will be defined when the proposed rule is published on or before Aug. 12.
The 2014 proposed critical habitat map for the Salado salamander centers on an area on both sides of I-35 that center on 300-meter radius zones from the Robertson spring west of I-35 and the Lil Bubbly and Lazy Day Fish Farm complex of springs in downtown Salado.
“A critical habitat designation does not necessarily restrict further development,” The USFWS states in a publication entitled Critical Habitit. “It is a reminder to Federal agencies of their responsibility to protect the important characteristics of these areas.
The publication further states: “Only activities that involve a Federal permit, license, or funding, and are likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat will be affected. If this is the case, we will work with the Federal agency and landowners—including private landowners—to amend their project to enable it to proceed without adversely affecting critical habitat. Most Federal projects are likely to go forward, but some may be modified to minimize harm.”
According to the publication, “Biologists consider physical and biological features that the species needs for life processes and successful reproduction. These features include:
“• space for individual and population growth and for normal behavior;
“• cover or shelter;
“• food, water, air, light, minerals,
“• or other nutritional or physiological
“• sites for breeding and rearing offspring, germination, or seed dispersal;
“• habitats that are protected from disturbances or are representative of the historical geographical and ecological distributions of the species.”
Aaron told aldermen April 16 that the final critical habitat area will likely be the same area that was proposed when the USFWS determined that the Salado and Georgetown salamanders were threatened.
He told aldermen that the Bell County Adaptive Management Coalition should continue its work with local stakeholders and property owners in addressing the issues surrounding protection of the Salado salamander and its critical habitat.
The Management Coalition includes Bell County government, Village of Salado, Salado Water Supply Corporation and Clearwater UCD along with private property owners in the salado Creek watershed.
“We will need to continue to get the best data on the Salado salamander,” he said, “so that decisions can be made based on good science.”
He asked aldermen to be ready to continue working with the Management Coalition to give good, science-driven public comments during that period.
For such a little thing, the Salado salamander has been closely studied since it was first proposed for listing by the USFWS in 2012.
According to Tony Hibbits, in his 2013 “Distribution of the Salado Salamander (Eurycea chisholmensis) Final Report,” the Salado salamander “was first discovered around 1950 immediately downstream of Big Boiling spring. No salamanders were known to be found between the first discovery and 1989, but with sporadic searching between 1989 and 2012 less than 30 Salado Salamanders were found in the vicinity of the type locality,” quoting Chad Norris.
The species was described by Paul Chippindale in 2000 and at the time was only known from three springs in and near Salado (it has been listed to occur in Big Boiling Spring but no known specimen has been verified to have come from there) and has since been discovered at three additional springs West of Salado on private property.
MRJ Forstner in 2012 challenged the current phylogenetic hypothesis that elevated the Salado Salamander (as well as several other Eurycea species) to a full species. Forstner stated in 2012 unpublished report “An evaluation of the existing scientific evidence for the currently proposed hyperdiversity of salamanders (Eurycea sp.) in central Texas” that the three species of Eurycea north of the Colorado River should be considered a single species.
Since 2015, Paul Diaz, working with others on behalf of the FWS, has closely monitored the Salado salamander, presenting the findings in an annual report. In the2019 report, he stated “This year was the second most productive year in salamander detections with 42 compared to 45 in 2017. We detected salamanders each month until October; then no detections occurred until December. There were no detections at Big Boiling Springs this year, which is similar to 2016 when no salamanders were detected. This year had the highest average discharge on Salado Creek while monitoring was occurring (117.9 m3/s). This average was followed by 2016 discharge in Salado Creek (89.1 m3/s).”
“These guys have been here forever,” Diaz said during a talk at Barrow Brewing in July 2018..
He was speaking of the Eurycea chisholmensis, commonly known as the Salado salamander, a species that the US FWS listed in 2014 as Threatened. The species was under consideration to be listed as Endangered, which would have brought about federal regulation of land use and other activities.
“You have been living in harmony forever,” he added.
“We see Pete about once a month wearing galoshes in Big Bubbly and Li’l Bubbly springs looking for the elusive salamanders,” K.D. Hill said in introducing him to the audience.
The Salado salamander is part of a group of Central Texas salamanders that are located in the northern part of the Edwards Aquifer.
About 15 million years ago, there was a major split in the original ancestor species with the group of salamanders located north of the Colorado River taking on very different characteristics than the southern group of salamanders.
The northern group of salamanders live in the springs of the Edwards aquifer and during periods of extreme drought move down into the interstitial areas between the surface springs and the deep, fresh water of the aquifer itself.
Diaz explained that when he first began coming to Salado in 2015 to search for the Salado salamander (which at that time had not been spotted by anyone for a few years), he came at a time that the major drought had broken and the area had been having a good amount of rains to fill the aquifer.
He described his first visit to Salado with County Commissioner Tim Brown and Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District Manager Dirk Aaron. Diaz reached down and grabbed one. It was almost enough to “make them cry,” he said with a laugh.
The reappearance of the Salado salamander in the surface springs reaffirmed what locals have been saying about the Salado salamander: that it goes into the interstitial spaces during drought conditions.
Since then, the range of the Salado salamander has been expanded due in part to new genetic analysis by biologists. According to recent work by Diaz, there are now six locations that the Salado salamander has been confirmed, including springs in northern Williamson County. In 2015, it was confirmed in the Big Bubbly, Li’l Bubbly, Robertson Springs and a spring formation on the Solana Ranch.
“The Anderson spring is a new locality for us,” Diaz said.
The Salado salamander was first described in 1961.
“It is distinctly different than Georgetown, Barton Springs and Jollyville salamanders,” Diaz said. “It has larger eyes and a bigger tail.”
It is also distinct in its genetic structure. “These are narrow splits (genetic differences),” Diaz said.
The Salado salamander was designated as a distinct species in 2000 in a Status Report of Central Texas Salamanders by principle investigators David M. Hillis and Paul T. Chippindale.
In that status report, Chippindale et al stated: “Salamanders from these springs are very distinctive morphologically, with elongated bodies, large rectangular heads, uniform brown to gray-brown coloration, and very reduced eyes. Discriminant morphometric analyses (Chippindale et al l991) readily separate individuals from this population from those from other surface populations. The Salado salamanders also share a peptidase D allele with animals from the Georgetown group, an allele that otherwise appears to be very rare in the northern region. Based on the available information (primarily morphology and distribution), we regard the Salado group as a distinct species and plan to describe it as such.”
Since the Salado salamander was listed as Threatened, Diaz has regularly come to Salado to observe the species and study it further. Texas FWS also tests the water quality at Salado springs quarterly. Meanwhile, Clearwater UWCD tests the water of Salado creek and Salado springs regularly and particularly after major events such as heavy rains and contact of large numbers of people in the springs/creek.
This work, Diaz said, “has validated that they are here and are well and abundant.”
What does that mean for Salado? A great deal, according to Diaz. “It means there is a healthy community in the aquifer. The big benefit is that this is an indicator of the water quality here. It means that the water is clean and fresh,” he said.
It also means that Salado can “maintain autonomy. This is not just important for Salado but for everyone,” he said.
The new locations of the Salado salamander also means this: “These aquifers are more connected than we may have hypothesized in the past,” Diaz said.
Diaz spoke about the benefits of water monitoring. “This helps meet ecological goals and to be sure that there is a functioning eco-system,” he said.
By having management goals in place, sites can by prioritized. “We can identify ideal conditions, minimize the take of species that are threatened and identify triggers for concern,” he said.
Diaz shared descriptions of the prey for the Salado salamander, many of which are microscopic in size.
Since 2015, with the financial backing of the Clearwater UWCD, Bell County Government and the Village of Salado, the Bell County Coalition has collected a great deal of scientific data on the species, including occupancy surveys, habitat association, collection of the populations genetic material and an examination of how it is moving between site. “We are able to track some individuals over time from their hard patterns and find their movements,” he said.
“We have one of the most unique aquifer systems in the world,” he said, adding the biologists have found a blind fish that lives 800 feet deep in the aquifer, blind shrimp, blind salamanders, blind leeches and blind rifflebeatles. “The first blind rifflebeatle in North America was found in the Edwards Aquifer where we have found three of them,” Diaz said. “This is a good indicator of water quality.”
“These are ancient sorts of creatures,” he said. “You have been living in harmony forever.”