Conservation of the California Tiger Salamander
The tiger salamanders are grassland specialists and they spend most of their lives underground. They don't dig on their own tunnels, they use underground passages created by other animals. Their genus, Ambystoma, is the only kind of salamander that inhabits the Great Plains. The California tiger salamander is a unique species that formed when California was isolated by the uplift of the Sierra Nevada mountains several hundred thousand years ago. The California tiger salamander has subsequently split into three genetically distinct populations: the largest population in California's Central Valley, and two smaller populations in Santa Barbara and Sonoma Counties. California tiger salamander populations have declined drastically in the last twenty years as their habitat has been fragmented, developed and converted to vineyards. The Fish and Wildlife Service downgraded all three populations from endangered to threatened in 2004, which is good for the main population in that it gives the Service and landowners more management options. However the downlisting of the two smaller populations is inexplicable due to their small numbers and fragmented habitats. Litigation on their downlisting is likely, and we hope it will shed some light on the political forces that are being brought to bear on the FWS.
Professor H. Bradley Shaffer of the University of California has studied the California tiger salamander for many years, and was instrumental in their listing under the Endangered Species Act. We spoke with him about the natural history of, and conservation efforts on behalf of this highly endangered species.