Searching for Salamanders at Old Nuke Site

  • Salamanders are a good indicator of wetland health. (Photo courtesy of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Government workers are slogging around in man-made wetlands.
looking for salamanders. Back in the 1950’s, the United States government
selected a plot of land to be the home of its newest uranium processing plant.
Since the end of the Cold War, the now-closed nuclear processing plant has
been undergoing the long and arduous task of returning to its natural wetland
state. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tana Weingartner reports on the search for salamanders at the site, and why
their presence is so important:

Transcript

Government workers are slogging around in man-made wetlands looking for salamanders. Back in the 1950’s, the United States government selected a plot of land to be the home of its newest uranium processing plant. Since the end of the Cold War, the now-closed nuclear processing plant has been undergoing the long and arduous task of returning to its natural wetland state. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tana Weingartner reports on the search for salamanders at the site, and why their presence is so important:


It’s a cold, windy day in late March as specialists from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency head out to check their traps at the Fernald Nuclear Plant. The 1050-acre facility sits in a rural area just 18 miles north of Cincinnati. Although the EPA is in charge of cleaning up the uranium contamination here, today they’re on a different mission. Today they’re hunting salamanders.


“Salamanders basically are a sign of an established wetland usually, and in this case would show that we put a wetland in a location where salamanders need additional breeding habitat.”


In other words, Schneider says the presence of salamanders indicates the first level of success for these manmade wetlands. The wetland project is one of several ways the EPA is ensuring Fernald is properly restored to its natural state.


“Well, we’re looking forward to the day when we get the site cleaned up, and it can be like a land lab, and people can bring kids out here and do environmental education on the importance of wetlands, and it’s going to make a great contrast with what used to be here and the environmental contamination with the environmental benefit the facility is providing down the road.”


Today, the site is 70 percent certified clean, and officials expect to finish the cleanup by June 2006. Creating healthy wetlands full of insects, amphibians and salamanders is one of the first steps to success.


“So the method here is to set ten traps equidistant, hopefully, around the perimeter of the wetland. And they’re passive traps, whereby animals that are moving over the course of the 24 hours or so that the traps have been in, will bump into the traps and it’s a funnel that directs them into the center part of the trap, and they’re held in there until we release them.”


(splashing sound)


Schneider and his team laugh and joke as they pull the traps up by brightly colored ribbons. Train horns and construction noises mix with bird calls – one a reminder of what has been, the other a sign of what’s to come.


“That’s probably a one-year-old bullfrog there and then these big guys are dragonfly larvae and these other guys are back swimmers. Mayfly larvae and dragonfly larvae are both good indicators of high water quality.”


The third pond, or vernal pool, turns up 46 tadpoles and a tiny peeper frog, but no salamanders.


(truck door slams)


So it’s back in the truck and on down the dirt road to where several more wetland pools sit just across from the on-site waste dump. That dump will be Fernald’s lasting reminder of its former use. These pools are younger and less established, but they do offer hope. Last year, adult salamanders were found in the one closest to a clump of trees.


Each spring, as the snow melts away and temperatures rise, salamanders venture out in the first 50-degree rain to begin their search for a mate. Schneider had hoped warm temperatures in late February and early March prompted “The Big Night,” as it’s known.


“So, no salamanders today?”


“No salamanders today. I think we learned a little bit about the difference between wetlands that are three years old. We saw a lot more diversity in the macroinvertebrates, the insect population, than we have down here.”


Perhaps the salamanders haven’t come yet, or maybe they have already come and gone, leaving behind the still un-hatched eggs. Either way, the team will check back again in April and a third time in late May or June.


“And we have high hopes, high hopes, high apple pie in the sky hopes. That’s the kind.”


(sound of laughter)


For the GLRC, I’m Tana Weingartner.

Related Links

From Counting Frogs to Rescuing Them

  • Members of the Amphibian Conservation Club show the frogs being transferred to their protected habitat from a pond that will become a parking lot later this summer.

Every summer, thousands of people wander through swamps and ditches in search of frogs. They’re frogwatchers— volunteers across North America, who help scientists track the health and movement of amphibians. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly caught up with one group and found they’re no longer just watching frogs, but rescuing them:

Transcript

Every summer, thousands of people wander through swamps and ditches in search of frogs.
they’re frogwatchers – volunteers across North America, who help
scientists track the health and movement of amphibians. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Karen Kelly caught up with one group and found they’re no longer just watching frogs, but
rescuing them:


(sound of frog, “I think this one’s talking now…”)


11-year-old Tyler Degroot shows off two bullfrogs in the plastic
terrarium he’s carrying. He struggles to keep the lid on as they try to escape.


He’s spent all morning combing for frogs in this swampy ditch on
Petrie Island. Not far from Ottawa, Canada’s capital.


It’s pouring rain. But he and his friends have no time for jackets or umbrellas. They run from log
to log dipping their nets in the water.


(“Holy smokes! Look at them all!”)


It might sound like fun, but they’re here on serious business.


The bulldozers in the distance are a constant reminder. Soon, this ditch – the frogs’ home – will be
turned into a parking lot.


11-year-old Ingrid Weinhold says they’re here to save as many
frogs as they can.


“We want to make sure the frogs stay on Petrie Island
and we want to make sure that people can see frogs later and so
that they don’t all die when the ditch gets filled with sand.”


Weinhold is a member of the Amphibian Conservation Club. It’s a group of homeschoolers who
meet once a month to study and discuss amphibians. They started visiting Petrie Island last year
to conduct frog watches.


It’s part of an annual census of frogs led by Environment Canada,
a government agency. The students count the number and species of frogs to find out how
many are in a given area. And that’s when they discovered that some of the resident
amphibians were in danger.


(“I just saw a whole bunch of frogs over here, okay? They went in all different directions.”)


11-year-old Gabrielle Felio is the club’s founder.
She hesitates to leave the ditch until every frog has been picked
up.


As she talks about them, her eyes look worried behind her
rain-splattered glasses.


“It’s just that they help the environment a lot. That’s
probably why we like them a lot and we want to help them. Because
it’s going to help the area and it’s going to help a lot of other
animals if we help the frogs.”


(walking)


With their terrariums full, the frogwatchers hike through the woods to a pond that they’ve
adopted. They’ve saved more than 30 frogs today. There are green frogs, bull frogs and leopard
frogs.


When they reach the pond, the rescuers open their terrariums.


(“There they go!”)


Some reach in and pull the frogs out one by one. Others just tip the terrariums upside down.


(“Woo! He’s a slippery one. I’ll get him. You did a cannonball!”)


Tyler DeGroot watches his bullfrog kick away from the shore.


He looks satisfied.


“I feel good…I think the frogs feel good, too, cause
they’ll probably have a nice little happy pond that’s not polluted
so they can just swim around and have fun.”


Each student carries a notebook to keep track of how many frogs
they moved from the ditch to the pond. Then, at the end of the summer, the group will compile
all their observations. They’ll send them to Environment Canada’s Frogwatch.


Elizabeth Kilvert is the director of the program. She says the reports from these amateur
scientists are invaluable.


“When we have people out there observing in their backyards
at different locations, we’re getting really good geographical
coverage that Environment Canada could never provide by going and
working out in the fields.”


Kilvert says it’s important to track frogs. That’s because they’re sensitive to changes in the
environment. And researchers see them as an early warning system.


Frogwatcher Ingrid Weinhold says she’s happy to help.


“I feel pretty good cause then they can figure out stuff with
the information… like if there’s too much pollution in one spot
and if the frogs have too many legs or something they can figure
out if there’s something wrong with the water.”


Before long, the frogwatchers are catching frogs again – in the
same pond where they just released them.


(“Let me see him!”)


This time, it’s just for fun.


Soon, they’ll head back to a classroom to compare notes… and make plans for their next rescue
effort – before the bulldozers move in.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

Related Links

KIDS SAVE FROGS FROM BULLDOZERS (Short Version)

A group that usually spends its time counting frogs, is now rescuing frogs. It recently learned that the frogs’ habitat is being filled in and paved over for a parking lot. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:

Transcript

A group that usually spends its time counting frogs, is now rescuing
frogs. It recently learned that the frogs’ habitat is being filled in and paved
over for a parking lot. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly
reports:


(sound of kids)


The Amphibian Conservation Club meets at Petrie Island, outside of Ottawa,
Ontario, once a month. These young homeschoolers usually come to the island to study
frogs. But they recently discovered one of their favorite ponds is going to be
turned into a parking lot.


So, the kids have embarked on a rescue mission – moving as many frogs as
they can. 11-year-old Frank Ogilvie says they’re motivated by their love of
amphibians.


“I really, really, really like frogs. Yes I do. And I think that
they’re a great habitat indicator and that they are one of my favorite
animals.”


The group is inviting family and friends to join them in a last minute
blitz to save the animals before the bulldozers cover up the frogs’ home.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.