A Marquette city park is shutting a part of its lone road down for a month to assist a few local creatures: blue-spotted salamanders.
The salamanders spend the chilly, snowy Upper Peninsula winters beneath the ground. Then every spring, like clockwork, they advance toward nearby pools, where they will mate and lay eggs. Yet, at Presque Isle Park, that journey includes crossing the Peter White Drive, the single street circling through the well-known 323 – acre forested park on a peninsula sticking into Lake Superior.
Eli Bieri, a biology student from Northern Michigan University, studied and counted the road-killed salamanders on that stretch of Peter White Drive in the spring of 2019 and tracked down 429 carcasses.
“And their carcasses are popular food for seagulls, foxes and raccoons, so we probably missed a few,” he said.
According to Bieri’s exploration, roughly 10% to 20% of the park’s blue-spotted salamander populace, which is a disturbing number that risks forever depleting the park’s population. So he enlisted the assistance of the Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Conservancy, a local association that’s non-profit engaged with preservation and government-funded education projects.
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“Blue spotted salamanders are not an endangered species, but their range is so small,” said Tyler Penrod, a program supervisor with Superior Watershed Partnership. “If we lose them in Presque Isle Park, you can kind of consider them gone forever. You would have to reintroduce new salamanders to reestablish a population. And that’s a road we don’t want to go down. It’s easier to just shut down a road for a couple of nights in the spring.”
Penrod contacted Marquette city authorities, and last spring got the important stretch of road within the park shut down temporarily to overnight vehicular traffic – while the rising salamanders were on the move. The outcome: a mere three salamanders were counted as road-killed.
“Those were probably from bicycles or people inadvertently stepping on them,” Bieri said.
With that achievement illustrated, city authorities are doing the same thing this year. From March 15 to April 15, the recreation area’s street in the stretch where the salamanders cross will be shut down again to motorized vehicles for the time being.
The park’s street is regularly shut down for the colder time of the year and wholly opened back up in May when the snowpack melts and the city teams have had the opportunity to do some upkeep and maintenance. Said Jon Swenson, director of community services for the city.
Blue-spotted salamanders are local to North America, with habitats ranging from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Coast and up into the parts of Canada. When fully grown, they can reach from 4 to 5.5 inches long, with pale blue, dark skin and distinctive somewhat blueish white spots on their bodies. They spend the hotter months of the year living under the timberland leaf cover or logs. For the colder months, they tunnel their way underground.
“They’ve been recorded up to 8 feet underground,” Bieri said. “They go underneath the ice line and brave the colder time of year that way.”
In springtime, as the ground warms up and rains come and go, the salamanders arise in a coordinated fashion to advance towards the park ponds located less than 1,000 feet away, where they will breed.
“You’ll see them climbing over snowbanks and enduring freezing rain conditions,” Bieri said.
The salamanders play a significant part in the Midwest’s biological systems. As creatures of land and water, beginning life living in and breathing water before growing lungs and moving onto land as full-grown salamanders, they’re a staple food choice for birds, reptiles, fish, and small mammals.