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Acquisition protects Red Hills salamander habitat

By David Rainer

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

A significant step in protecting an amphibian species that only lives in Alabama was celebrated last week at the Forever Wild Red Hills Complex in Monroe County. However, the latest acquisition of almost 5,000 acres of Red Hills salamander habitat comes with many more benefits, including public recreational opportunities like additional hunting and fishing.

Representatives from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and The Nature Conservancy toured the Red Hills salamander’s specific habitat found only in steep bluffs in Alabama’s Red Hills region of Conecuh, Covington, Crenshaw, Butler, Monroe and Wilcox counties.

Blankenship said a tour of the complex this summer with WFF’s Chuck Sykes and Doug Deaton made him realize what makes the Red Hills region special.

“To get to see the steep hillsides that make the home of the Red Hills salamander and see how unique that habitat is here in Alabama was special,” Blankenship said. “This is a unique place.

Leo Miranda, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the amount of the grant used for the addition to the Red Hills salamander habitat is unprecedented.

Other trusted partners in the acquisition include The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Resources and the Brown-Schutt Trust. The land acquisitions are known as the Red Hills Brown-Schutt Trust tract and the Red Hills Flat Creek Phase III tract. The tracts are located near the community of Franklin in Monroe County, Alabama, and join the 6,140-acre Forever Wild Red Hills Complex in the effort to increase the amount of protected salamander habitat.

The habitat protection also benefits other at-risk species like the Bachman’s sparrow, red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise, southern hognose snake, coral snake and eastern fox squirrel.

The Red Hills region’s steep slopes are covered in mixed hardwood and provide the shade and moisture needed for the salamander to survive. The translucent, purple-hued amphibian spends most of its time in a burrow, venturing out at night to prey upon small insects and earthworms. The Red Hills salamander, one of the largest lungless salamanders in the world, has been listed as federally threatened since 1977 and has been Alabama’s official amphibian since 2000.

Drew Nix, former WFF employee, and Steve Northcutt of The Nature Conservancy remembered the genesis of the Red Hills conservation effort.

“It all started after a Forever Wild Board meeting,” Northcutt said. “We were standing around talking about areas we needed to protect. We were discussing how we could get federal funds to help Forever Wild.”

Nix’s wife Ericha, also a WFF employee, started writing grant proposals for the acquisition of the Red Hills habitat, and that work culminated in last week’s celebration.

For more information, visit https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/species/3250 or www.outdooralabama.com/salamanders/red-hills-salamander.

Learn more about the Forever Wild Red Hills Complex at www.alabamaforeverwild.com/red-hills-complex.