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Vermont awards $150,000 for critter crossing

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Why did the salamander cross the road? Because he wanted to check out the $150,000 tunnel built just for him.

State officials in Vermont awarded a six-figure grant last week to the Monkton Conservation Commission to build a tunnel under a busy street for salamanders and reptiles. The tunnel, or culvert, is expected to be completed in the city of Monkton by 2011.

Commission Chairman Chris Slesar said the structure is necessary to help safeguard the local amphibian population. Salamanders make the trek across the road each year "like clockwork" to reach a swamp used for mating.

"We're not trying to protect every raccoon, skunk or frog that wanders out on the road, but this site has scientific significance," Mr. Chris Slesar said. "It's not just the pet project of a local conservation committee. There's lots of research behind it."

He said that thousands of the salamanders attempt to cross Vergennes Road every spring, and then cross back a few days later. On some nights, however, as many as half wind up as roadkill on the heavily traveled highway.

Still, he acknowledged that reaction to the project has been mixed. While some Vermonters cheered the news, a slew of e-mails to the Burlington (Vt.) Free Press asked why the state was spending that kind of money on amphibians.

"I certainly respect all species. However, I don't see the need to pay $150,000 for a salamander crossing," said one e-mail. "I realize there are a lot of other stupid things my tax dollars go toward, but this one is near the top of the list."

One irate reader said it was "embarrassing to live in a state that has a significant budget deficit, increasing taxes and declining jobs that feels it is appropriate to squander $150,000 to try to protect salamanders that are getting run over."

Another reader asked whether "this is really the best use of this money that was/is supposed to be used for transportation projects. … Vermont's infrastructure is falling apart and is in dire need of fixing and you choose an amphibian crossing?"

Others said the culvert showed that Vermont cares about its wildlife. "Right on! We can't brag about our wonderful forests and wildlife without doing our best to keep them healthy. This is a great step," said an e-mail sender.

Mr. Slesar emphasized that the award didn't come from the state's general transportation budget. The grant was part of $3.8 million in federal funds given to Vermont for transportation enhancement projects, such as bike paths and landscaping along streets and sidewalks.

"We're not taking state money that would normally be used for repairs and highways," Mr. Slesar said. "It's not out of the same pot."

That the money originated with the federal government and not the state failed to appease some Vermonters.

"Thanks for using our tax dollars, Monkton … not just yours," said one e-mail sender.

This isn't the world's only salamander crossing, although it will be a first for Vermont. There are several in Europe, and one in Amherst, Mass.

Vermont's amphibian population isn't endangered, but it does include three species listed as "species of greatest need," including the blue-spotted salamander. Vermont wildlife expert Jim Andrews has called the crossing at Huizenga Swamp "one of the most important of the known amphibian crossings in the state," according to the Free Press.

The commission has monitored the site for nine years. Volunteers have even spent nights assisting the amphibians across the stretch of road, which stretches about eight-tenths of a mile.

"You can literally hear them walking on a big night," said Mr. Slesar. "It's pretty cool."