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Buying a home for nature's survivors; Maryland spends for rare salamander


They're native Marylanders, thin-skinned but hardy types who live in quiet seclusion by the water. But over the past half-century, most of them have disappeared without a trace.

Tiger salamanders, once commonly found in the woods and marshy pools along the Chesapeake Bay, have become so scarce in Maryland that the state wants to guarantee them a safe dwelling place.

The Department of Natural Resources is preparing to spend about $293,000 to buy the home of Maryland's largest-known surviving colony of tiger salamanders.

The 130 acres, sandwiched between parts of a state wildlife preserve in Kent County, include wetlands and a breeding pond that has been studied continuously by the man who discovered it in 1952.

"Securing sites where they're known to breed is probably the best thing that can be done," said Charles J. Stine, an ecologist whose research at the Massey Pond site has made him an expert on the black-and-yellow striped salamander. "They're classic victims of habitat destruction."

In addition to the salamander pond, the state plans to buy two neighboring properties in Allegany County, a combined 439 acres at a cost of $382,000, that shelter a half-dozen tiny, rare plants.

The three purchases are up for approval today by the state Board of Public Works.

None of the species the state wants to save is large -- or showy. Most passers-by would not notice the salamander, usually burrowed underground, or a shrub such as Canby's mountain lover, a little evergreen with leathery leaves.

But all are extremely unusual nowadays in Maryland. They're either on the state's endangered list, surviving in five or fewer places, or considered threatened -- found in fewer than 20 spots across the state.

"It's pretty easy to sell people on protecting big and beautiful things," said Janet McKegg, administrator of the state's Heritage Conservation Fund. "But it's just as important to protect all the little things that we don't know that much about."

Maryland is among a growing number of states that have concluded that the best way to protect the most environmentally sensitive land is to buy it.

Over the past 11 years, Maryland's Heritage Conservation Fund, financed with real estate transfer taxes, has spent about $9 million to acquire 9,800 acres of forested slopes, creeks and grasslands. The state typically steps in when undisturbed acreage is about to be sold for development, as was the case with the salamander pond and the fields with rare plants.

The latest purchases were made possible by the Nature Conservancy. Because the state could not move quickly enough, the national preservation consortium bought the properties when they went on the market in the past two years -- and is now selling them to the state. In southeastern Allegany County, the land south of the town of Pumpkin Center is notable for highly specialized vegetation in its fields and on shale barrens, rocky patches too dry for trees. Plants include Canby's mountain lover, the evergreen shrub; Kate's mountain clover, a flowering ground cover; and Leonard's skullcap, a 4-foot perennial with bluish flowers.

"They're tough because the habitat is real dry and rocky," said McKegg. "They're also tiny and fragile, at least from human disturbance. If you walk around, you'll destroy them."

In Kent County, near the Delaware border, the state intends to expand Millington Wildlife Management Area to include the salamander pond and surrounding woods. Fewer than 100 tiger salamanders live there, though theirs is the largest known colony in the state.

Tiger salamanders, though among the biggest and hardiest of their kind, are endangered along the East Coast. Adults are typically 8 inches long, compared to an average 5-inch salamander, live up to 18 years and roam the coastal plain from Long Island to southeastern Louisiana as well as the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. They can also be found in eastern Texas.

The salamanders are distinctive for their bulging eyes and their black or brownish markings on a yellowish body, which led to their name. They mostly live underground, in woods near shallow ponds known on the Eastern Shore as "Delmarva bays."

Ecologist Stine has studied more than one generation's habits since discovering the salamander colony in 1952. At the time, he found other tiger salamanders around the Chesapeake Bay. But almost all of them have vanished over the years, their ponds destroyed by new roads and housing subdivisions.

Tiger salamanders can be found in Kent, Queen Anne's and Caroline counties, said Scott Smith, a state regional heritage ecologist.

"I know some people are going to say, 'Why are we buying land for a salamander?' " he said. "I've seen quite a few other species -- ducks, geese, amphibians -- use the pond. And there's no question, there are not many of these salamanders still around."

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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