A turtle and a salamander

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Shortly following my return to Auburn in 1966, my first graduate student was Ron Estridge, who currently resides in Auburn and is active in the “Save our Saugahatchee Creek” endeavor. For his MS research project, he was directed to conduct research on the flattened musk turtle, a poorly known species whose range is confined to the Upper Black Warrior System in northern Alabama. A few years later the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service hired me, for $18,000, to conduct a status survey of the turtle. I spent a summer on the survey and concluded in my report that the turtle be federally listed as a threatened species, and that runoff from surface coal mines was a major reason for the turtle’s precarious status. Shortly thereafter, a front-page headline in the “Birmingham News” blared,”Turtle May Halt Coal Mining In Alabama.”
Obviously, the newspaper article,containing my recommendation, upset the coal industries, and the Alabama Coal Association hired some out-of-state herpetologists, for $100,000, to conduct a follow-up study of the turtle, hoping that their findings would be more favorable to the coal mining interests than mine were. To the Association’s dismay, the conclusions reached by their hired herpetologists were not significantly different from mine. The Association then requested that a third, independent survey be conducted by U. S. F. & W. personnel. The Service complied and after several months found no evidence to refute my conclusions. Hence, the turtle was listed as threatened, and the mining companies were required to minimize runoff from their mines. Needless to say, I became a “persona non grata” in Alabama’s coal mining country.
Several years later, I became concerned about the Red Hills salamander, a rare species confined to ravine slopes dominated by hardwood trees in a narrow belt of semi-mountainous terrain in the Red Hills of southern Alabama. I feared the extensive clear-cutting of forests in the region was having a deleterious effect on the salamander. I assigned Terry Schwaner, one of my graduate students, to delineate and map the salamander’s remaining suitable habitats, and to determine their ownership. He determined that the vast majority of the owners were large timber and pulpwood companies. Not long afterward, Ralph Jordan Jr., who as a student was my “right-hand-man”, conducted his M.S. research on the life history and ecology of the Red Hills salamander and the prospects for its continued survival.
The results of his research were presented at a national meeting of herpetologists and were published.
Among the conclusions was a recommendation that the salamander be listed as a threatened species. A week or so later, a front-page article in the “Mobile Press-Register” was head-lined,”Salamander Could Restrict Timber Harvesting In South Alabama.” That elicited protests by landowners, businessmen, and newspaper editors. The late Hollis Curl, publisher of the “Wilcox Progress Era,” opined, “If Professor Mount and Coach Ralph Jordan’s son would quit coming down here and crawling around in the woods at night, we wouldn’t be having these problems.” (Hollis and I ultimately became close friends.)
To demonstrate how things change over time, a few years ago, third-graders at Fairhope Elementary School, aided by their teachers, undertook to have the Red Hills salamander designated the state amphibian. Their campaign was successful.
Meanwhile, most of the owners of the salamander’s habitat now refrain from clear-cutting the ravine slopes and otherwise jeopardizing its chances of continued survival.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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