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Watershed Protection outlines salamander plan

Monday, January 12, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Watershed Protection Department staff dived into the details of the city’s Habitat Management Plan on Wednesday. The plan will protect the Barton Springs salamander and the Austin blind salamander, two federally endangered species known to live exclusively in Barton Springs.

Watershed Protection salamander biologist Tom Devitt told the Environmental Board that the plan includes a variety of measures to enhance living conditions in the springs collectively known as Barton Springs: Parthenia Spring, Eliza Spring, Upper Barton Spring and Old Mill Spring.

“Our goals with the Habitat Management Plan are to improve the habitat in order to work toward the recovery of these species,” Devitt later told the Austin Monitor. Watershed Protection’s current operations, he added, include “actively restoring stream habitat, removing sediment and doing some predator management.”

The Barton Springs salamander is an aquatic species that exists only in Barton Springs, while the Austin blind salamander is a subterranean species known to live only in the waters of the Edwards Aquifer, below the surface of the springs.

Watershed Protection Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak told the Monitor that his department uses its own funding to pay for salamander habitat management projects.

Lesniak also said that, aside from being endangered, the salamanders are significant indicator species for the area. “The salamanders, historically, have been considered the canary in the coal mine for water quality — for the Edwards Aquifer, Barton Springs and Barton Creek,” he said.

“When the salamanders are doing well,” Lesniak continued, “that’s an indication that we’re managing not just Barton Springs and Barton Springs Pool well, but the recharge zone and the Barton Creek watershed.”

Devitt said that researchers face obstacles in determining how well the salamanders are doing. “The salamander population numbers, or at least our estimates of the population numbers, do vary over time,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that the population numbers are actually fluctuating, just that sometimes they’re easier to find than others.

“The numbers at a couple of our sites have been a little low lately, but that could be seasonal,” Devitt continued. “There’s a number of different things that could cause that, but for the most part the population status for both species is stable.

“While the populations appear to be stable at this point, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be in the future, although we don’t have any reason to think that they wouldn’t be,” he said.

Devitt told the Environmental Board that in Parthenia Spring, located in Barton Springs Pool, flooding is one of the greatest threats to salamanders and their habitats. He said that floods can fill the fissures at the bottom of the spring where salamanders and their invertebrate prey live with sediment and wash away the vegetation and rocks that help form their habitat.

In order to combat flood impacts, Devitt said, Watershed Protection staff hoses out the fissures at the bottom of the spring following a flood and replaces some of the vegetation and rocks that the flood may have displaced.

Devitt added that the overabundance in the spring of certain predatory fish such as largemouth bass and other sunfish species also threatens the salamander populations. In order to get a better understanding of the issue, Devitt said, Watershed Protection is studying how often salamanders fall prey to these predators.

Watershed Protection plans to make structural changes to Eliza Spring — also known as Concession Spring — which is currently surrounded by a concrete amphitheater and has a concrete floor.

Devitt said that staff plans to remove the concrete floor with as little damage to the underlying bedrock as possible and convert a failing underground outflow pipe into a “daylighted” above-ground stream that would be a suitable habitat for the Barton Springs salamander as well as a scenic attraction.

Watershed Protection also plans to adjust the stream outflow of Old Mill Spring, which is located in Sunken Gardens, to make it more suitable for the Barton Springs salamander. Currently, Devitt said, some salamanders do live in the stream, but it flows too quickly to be an ideal habitat, which staff will address by making the stream less steep and adding more curves.

The salamander population of Upper Barton Spring, which Devitt called a “popular recreation spot,” faces challenges caused by human activity. “Swimming, wading and bathing in the spring and the spring stream can crush salamanders, and it does crush salamanders,” he said.

Devitt added that people also leave behind impediments to the salamander habitat, such as stacked rocks that alter the flow of streams, graffiti, litter and human and pet waste.

The city installed signs advising against these types of activities, Devitt said, but they were quickly vandalized or stolen. As an alternative, Watershed Protection is working with the Parks and Recreation Department to construct fences and gates to reduce access to the trail that leads from Barton Springs Pool to Upper Barton Spring.

Devitt said that Watershed Protection also plans to remove a deteriorating dam across Barton Creek that the city built in the 1970s, address the resulting erosion and restore portions of the creek and its banks.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service required that the city develop the Habitat Management Plan in September 2013, when it renewed the incidental take permit that allows the city to operate Barton Springs as a recreational area. Watershed Protection submitted the plan last September, in time for the one-year deadline that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put in place.

The Endangered Species Act requires that private, nonfederal entities hold an incidental take permit for legal activities that may impact the population of endangered or threatened species.

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