On a cool, dewy morning in June, Graham Netting and Leonard Llewellyn departed their campsite and began the ascent to White Top Knob on Cheat Mountain. While admiring the summit views, one of the men spotted a creature squirming around underneath a boulder. Its dark purple belly was speckled with gold flecks that shimmered like stars scattered across a vast night sky. As a couple of curious biologists, they captured the animal and upon closer inspection discovered it was a critter unlike any other—a Cheat Mountain Salamander.
Netting and Llewellyn found the first Cheat Mountain Salamander (CMS) in 1935. Three years later, N. Bayard Green documented and named the species Plethodon nettingi. As the only vertebrate species endemic to West Virginia, the CMS occupies a range of 935 square miles that spans five counties: Grant, Tucker, Randolph, Pocahontas, and Pendleton. Within this small range, scientists have discovered 80 isolated populations that occupy high-elevation sites in the Allegheny Mountains. With so few individuals segmented across the landscape, the species is struggling and as a result, has been considered federally threatened since 1989.
As a relatively picky species, the CMS has special requirements for its habitat. It prefers cool, moist environments covered with boulders, logs, and other forest debris under which to hide. These environments are characteristic of red spruce forests that once covered 1.5 million acres of West Virginia until the early 1900s when the forests were extensively logged and burned. Red spruce forests now occupy a fraction of the land they once did, which has permitted other tree species such as yellow birch, maple, and beech to take their place.
Along with changes in the forest, the land itself has changed. The development of buildings, roads, and trails has further fragmented CMS populations making it difficult for individuals to travel far from where they were born. Unlike adult salamanders, who are territorial and typically stay within a one-square meter home range, juveniles can disperse and occupy new habitats. But if juveniles are prevented from travelling, they will establish territories near their relatives, which reduces genetic diversity within populations and can potentially drive the species to extinction. Because the CMS is an icon of the red spruce forests that previously dominated the West Virginia landscape, scientists, conservation groups, and skiers have joined forces to protect the species and restore its habitat.
Ski Trails and Salamander Tales
Meet Dr. Thomas Pauley, the world’s leading expert on the CMS and Professor Emeritus at Marshall University. Since the 1960s, Pauley has studied the CMS to learn more about its biology and map its occurrence. One day, Pauley went to survey a piece of property in Canaan Valley and was joined by Chip Chase, chief commander of White Grass Ski Touring Center. “That was in the 1990s,” recalls Chase. “I helped him flip rocks and we became friends.” During that survey, they discovered CMS populations near several of White Grass’s ski trails. Pauley knew from his previous work that roads and large ski slopes prevented the salamanders from dispersing to new habitats, but the impacts of cross-country ski trails were less clear.
The trails at White Grass are narrow and nestled within the forest, which maintains more of the habitat that salamanders prefer. Although skiing can compact the ground, these impacts are alleviated in part by the frozen, snowy base. During the winter, the salamanders hide underground to avoid the harsh conditions, so there’s no need to worry about skiing over them. In the summer when the salamanders emerge from their cozy rock crevices, the ground cover on the trails grows back. “Nobody’s up there hiking, biking, logging, or driving around, so you end up with undisturbed, overgrown trails that salamanders might cross,” says Chase. Pauley also realized that White Grass had far less of an impact on the CMS than other forms of development. “He was the one that always said you could have skiers and salamanders at the same time,” says Chase.
Bridging Recreation and Conservation
Despite some uncertainty about how cross-country ski trails affect the CMS, Chase acknowledges that “everything has an impact” and has always prioritized restoring their habitat and advancing research on the species. “We don’t want to be separating populations out if we can help it,” he says, “I’m proud to take part in any research being done and hopefully over time we can see what impacts we are actually having.”
In the meantime, White Grass has pursued a variety of paths to reduce their impacts and raise awareness about the CMS. They made certain trails narrower, avoided grooming and managing other areas, and planted trees to make the habitat more salamander friendly. In 2016, White Grass explored a new approach to ensure that skiers and salamanders could coexist. They built a bridge over a ski trail that crosses through a CMS population as part of a collaborative project with the Friends of the 500th, the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge (CVNWR), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“When we first started that project, we did surveys to see where the salamanders were to pinpoint where we should put the bridge,” says Dawn Washington, Wildlife Biologist at the CVNWR, who was involved with the project.
“Then we dug up soil on the trail, brought in rocks, logs, and other debris to mimic the conditions they are used to.” This salamander-friendly habitat now lies underneath the bridge, which follows the ski trail and allows skiers to pass over it. “Although it wasn’t perfect, it was something to try to entice them to cross the trail.”
Now Washington and colleagues are conducting a study where they mark individual salamanders on both sides of the bridge and track where they go. Although it’s a bit too early to determine whether the bridge effectively encourages salamander movement, Washington reports some good and bad news.
“We marked thirty salamanders this year and seventeen last year but have not found any of the same guys,” she says. “It’s discouraging, but it might be telling us that we have a lot more salamanders there than we think we do.”
Although it will take some time to see how the bridge affects the CMS, it has already been a successful experiment in merging recreation and conservation efforts. “We have this really cool trail next to an area where we have salamanders,” says Barbara Douglas, White Grass skier and Senior Endangered Species Biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The bridge was a way to develop something that was a win-win for everyone.”
Along with their restoration efforts, White Grass is a hub of winter activity in Canaan Valley. With ten miles of trails braided through snowcapped spruces, as well as hearty soups, warm chaga tea, and a lodge filled with friendly faces, it’s no wonder that White Grass brings in thousands of skiers each year. As the largest source of visitors to the CVNWR during the winter, White Grass provides a wonderland for people to play outside and learn about their surroundings.
Throughout the winter, Chase and other enthusiastic naturalists lead free snowshoe tours where attendees can learn about wildlife, forest ecology, geology, and the history of Canaan Valley. “We love putting on all the free snowshoe events,” says Chase. “That’s what it’s all about—getting people excited about things and getting people informed about things.”
These tours are yet another reflection of White Grass’s green approach to skiing, and the contributions that White Grass makes to the community and the land do not go unnoticed by their conservation partners. “Just having a few biologists sitting in an office, trying to protect something is not going to be effective,” says Douglas. “If people have connections to where there are, they’re going to care about it. If a community cares about where they live and supports what’s going on, then we can have sustainable, long-term conservation.”
Little Critter, Big Impact
Although the CMS is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, it has made a monumental impact on the people and communities that share its home. “This species is clinging to those last unique and beautiful places on top of the mountains,” says Douglas. “If we’re not protecting their habitat, then we won’t have those special places where we can ski, hike, bike, and just enjoy nature. As long as we are sensitive about where we are and what we’re doing when we’re outside, we can all coexist.” Chase and Washington share similar perspectives on protecting the land not just for recreation, but for all living things. Whether it’s a salamander, ski trail, or spruce forest, their ultimate goal is to find a way to thrive together, because as Chase simply says, “coexistence is a beautiful thing.”
Nikki Forrester is associate editor of Highland Outdoors and a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. You can find her nerding out on all things science in Canaan Valley.