Placeholder Image Newt crosses towards Laguna Lake
photo credit: KRCB


Newts. They’re small, orange, wet and slimy, and they’ve got to dodge a big obstacle. But as KRCB found out, they’ve got some helping hands.

When the rain comes down most of us cozy up inside. But in the Chileno Valley, west of Petaluma - the rain brings one amphibian out in droves: newts.

On rainy nights from December to March, hundreds venture down from the oak studded hills where the mature California and rough-skinned newts live, to their breeding grounds in shallow Laguna Lake.

In their way: Chileno Valley Road. Cutting through rural Marin ranch lands, the road lays an imposing gauntlet right through the newt’s ancestral path.

"The way I kind of look at it is this road was made by humans, and humans kind of created this problem," Ben DeDominic said. "So it's kind of our job to fix it."

DeDomenic is part of the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade - a dedicated group of volunteers - or as they call themselves: brigadiers, from around the Bay Area who, decked with high-visibility vests and flashlights, help patrol a nearly mile long stretch of road which the newts traverse.

"Everybody has a different answer, but my answer is because they're getting run over by cars," Sally Gale said. "Why would you not want to save them?"

Gale, a long time resident and rancher in Chileno Valley, started the Newt Brigade in late 2018.

She said she was on her way home to the ranch her family has owned since the Civil War, and she spotted dozens of dead newts, flattened by passing cars.

Gale, with her husband's help, spent that night moving newts across Chileno Valley Road - the start of the Newt Brigade.

"Because this is a county road, they, the county would take the lead in altering the road so that it's safe for amphibians, which cross the road as part of their migration," Gale said.

Brigadiers run the gamut, from lawyers and doctors to parks workers and high schoolers, all of them taking up the role of amateur naturalist on rainy winter nights.

"So mostly, you know, people kind of get why we're out here and think it's a cool thing for the most part," Gale said. "But then there are, there are some people who say, well, why save a newt? What's so special about a newt, and they, they really don't know."

Newts are what scientists consider an indicator species. Newts and other amphibians are highly sensitive to environmental degradation, pollution, and habitat destruction; and highly endangered.

Around 40% of known amphibian species are considered threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The most endangered vertebrate group on Earth.

In Chileno Valley the newts are indicators of a larger struggle. A struggle over land, water, and livelihoods, DeDominic said.

"There's always going to be problems with land use, especially when you're in rural areas," DeDominic said.

DeDominic said the ranchers' concerns are understandable.

"Let's say we discover a Tiger Salamander on the road and it's migrating to the Laguna, right?" DeDominic said. "A federally endangered species, state endangered species. Once that is proven that there's endangered species here, the ranchers might have to change their whole entire ranching operation."

Gale, a rancher herself, is intimately familiar with the issues facing ranchers; describing a loop of crippling drought which kills grasses, shortens grazing seasons, shrinks lakes and reservoirs, and forces further reliance on expensive trucked-in shipments of feed and hay.

West Marin and Sonoma counties have a long history of ranching and dairy operations, and Gale acknowledged the optics of the situation: it can seem like conservationists versus ranchers.

Gale, though, said she remains adamant the newts and cattle can coexist with proper environmental stewardship; and Gale says environmental care is shared across the community, by ranchers and environmentalists alike - not confined to a single camp.

"The newts and the frogs are not going to change their behavior just because there's a road here," Gale said. "And just because there are trucks and cars on it. We're the ones that have to change the way we do things in order to enable them to exist, we have to change."

She sees proactive action now as a way to prevent endangered listings and strict protections in the future; and said the Newt Brigade’s focus starts with making Chileno Valley Road safer for the newts.

"We're raising money to do a study of the road so that we can put together the geography of the road and the patterns, the behavior of the newts, so that we know how to alter the road so that they can cross it safely," Gale said. "So we're talking about culverts maybe, underpasses, graded passageways raised roads, kind of like a causeway."

One thing seems sure - when the rain pours and the newts emerge - the reflective vests and shining flashlights of the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade will be there to help them cross, one newt at a time.

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