Seeking Salamanders in a Wooded Wilderness


An Intense & Beautiful Wildlife Survey for SCA Forest Service Intern Mia Callahan

by SCA Intern Mia Callahan

It’s a Wednesday morning, and we five members of the Smokey Bear Ranger District wildlife crew (well, two members, two interns, and me, a Student Conservation Association recreation intern tagging along for the adventure) are in our office for the week: the Sacramento Mountain Wilderness. In 2004, the Peppin Fire burned most of the range, and since then the wilderness has reclaimed the trail system with a vengeance. A crew came through a week ago and cleared the first five miles of our seven-mile trek, but we’ve been hopping over more than 10 years of accumulated dead and downed debris since yesterday afternoon. It’s slow going, but most of our gear is at camp so at least our packs are lighter than they were at the start of the trip. My coworker Katie looks back at me with a grin: “Getting our high-stepping workout today, huh?”

The terrain around us is a little wetter, a little lusher than most of what we hiked through yesterday. We’re starting to feel cautiously hopeful: we’re surveying for Sacramento mountain salamanders, who tend to hang out in moist soil under damp, downed logs or rocks. The area was surveyed a few years ago, but the debris from the fire made it hard to repeat the effort until just recently. Every so often, someone will pause in their scramble over logs and boulders to poke at a loose stone or a pile of woody material, digging for our quarry. I scan the clouds for a moment and almost trip on the wildlife tech Nano when he kneels in front of me to check out a rotten log.

At a word from Todd, the head wildlife biologist, we fan out on either side of the trail, pawing through decaying plant matter and peering under rocks. We haven’t seen a soul. I feel like we’re trying to coax secrets from the mountains themselves. All we’re looking for is confirmation of presence or absence, and for that we just need to find two salamanders. That’s not too much to ask, right? Two of us focus on that downed log I almost tripped over—the top of it is almost at ground level, and when I squeeze a handful of material it drips moisture like a sponge. Perfect potential salamander habitat. If only the salamanders hadve also made this stunning revelation…

Katie shouts–“I’ve got one!!”–and I jump like a foot in the air. Two of us nearly fall over one another in our excitement, and we spend a few moments making sure we’re balanced again before we hurry over to the site of the discovery.

Cupped in her hands is a juvenile salamander, barely a few inches long and probably indignant at the manhandling. We all exchange high-fives and a steady determination to keep looking. We scatter again, grinning to beat the band, and resume our search.

That survey we found two salamanders–both juveniles–which meant we had confirmed presence in that location and a potentially positive outlook for future surveys: young salamanders grow up and breed and lead to more salamanders. We hiked 14 miles over three days (four of them spent high-stepping, man oh man we were sore afterwards) and surveyed the entire way. We napped through a thunderstorm in tents (literally we finished setting up camp right as the first drops started to fall), swapped stories around a fire, stargazed, stared at each other in wide-eyed silence as a bear snuffled around our campsite at midnight, got up with the sun, hiked out to the peak, found our two salamanders, hiked back to camp in the rain, and ate truly excessive amounts of raspberries. All in all, a successful surveying expedition.

Over my three months interning with the Forest Service through SCA, I worked recreation and tagged along with wildlife when I could. With the volunteer trails crew, I helped build and install trail signs and used giant antique crosscut saws to clear downed logs. I surveyed trails and tracked visitor usage and walked all through the White Mountain Wilderness with Alexis, my fellow SCA rec intern from Florida. We learned Leave No Trace and shared our knowledge with visitors, and explained the difference between regular national forest land and designated wilderness. With wildlife, I helped survey for Sacramento mountain salamanders and Mexican spotted owls. I spent a very stormy day on top of a mountain ridge hunting for a sensitive species of onion that hadn’t been thoroughly surveyed for in several years. I saw parts of the country I’d never even thought of seeing, and learned a ton, including a thing or two about what I’m capable of, some thoughts about my next steps, and just how many new experiences it’s possible to pack into such a short few months. I better understand the incredible amount of labor and intense level of expertise that conservation work entails, and have a tremendous amount of respect for those who have chosen to make it their careers. Some of the outreach I did in New Mexico turned my eye toward education, and as of last month, I’m serving as an Environmental Educator in Idaho for the next ten months. I never would have even considered the possibility if I hadn’t stumbled across the SCA in my last year of undergrad. It was truly a path-changing experience.

This project was funded by the National Forest Foundation in partnership with the US Forest Service.