Named for a high point of Shenandoah Mountain in the George Washington National Forest where it was first seen in the 1960s, the Cow Knob salamander is so scarce that its habitat has been protected by a federal conservation agreement.
That pact, forged in 1994 between the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, proved strong enough to turn aside the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline — something human opponents of the $5 billion project have yet to manage. To preclude listing the salamander under the federal Endangered Species Act, the agreement pledged to safeguard the animal’s limited home range.
Dominion Energy, based in Richmond, found out how firm that pledge was in 2016 when the Forest Service denied the company the right to run the pipeline through 5.5 miles of salamander habitat that lay smack in the middle of the 564-mile conduit proposed to funnel natural gas from West Virginia to southeastern Virginia and North Carolina. As a result, plans call for the pipeline to be rerouted around the salamander’s national forest habitat, adding 30 miles to the pipeline’s total length.
Dominion declines to say how much the detour has or will cost.
So, what is this animal that has caused all the fuss? “The Cow Knob salamander is unique to the Appalachian Mountains,” said Carol Croy, a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service, “and represents one of many rare and interesting species that make the Appalachians a recognized biodiversity hotspot, both in the Americas and throughout the world.”
Found in only a few counties in the George Washington National Forest on the Virginia/West Virginia line, the Cow Knob salamander (Plethodon punctatus) generally comes out of hiding and up to the forest floor at night during wet, rainy periods. Thus, it is very rarely encountered by outdoor enthusiasts, who might unknowingly tramp just above the salamander’s silent life in the underground.
With a black upper body shading down to a purplish belly, throat and toes, the salamander possesses the winsome smile that amphibian fans delight in. The “smile,” though, is involuntary, the function of its jawbone structure to harbor a plentiful assortment of teeth, all the better for tackling its sometimes crunchy, sometimes slippery, prey. The meaning of its Greek scientific name is literally “full of teeth.”
A high-elevation species, the largest populations are generally found on north-facing mountain slopes that are cooler, get more precipitation and are rocky and forested.
|Cow Nob Salamander habitat|
The pipeline construction, with its forest clearing and heavy equipment, threatened to destroy or disrupt salamander habitat, which is why the Forest Service denied access there while permitting it through other parts of George Washington National Forest.I've got nothing against the Cow Nob Salamander, but if you want to become extinct, evolving to fit a small niche in a variable environment, which might decide to move out from under you to a place you can't walk to is a good place to start. Perhaps evolving to live in the shade under a pipeline would be a more useful trait.
But for all of its tenacity in the face of a pipeline, the Cow Knob salamander may not be able to fend off the next threat.
While the historic conservation agreement between federal agencies has thus far kept the Cow Knob salamander from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, state authorities are anxious about its future.
John Kleopfer is a herpetologist with the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. He said that like many range-restricted species, the Cow Knob salamander is susceptible to natural or manmade catastrophic events — wildfires, clear-cutting, pipelines. And like many high elevation species today, the Cow Knob salamander may simply not be able to climb out of range of a warming world.