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Petaluma area volunteer group works to preserve native newt population

On any given chilly winter evening, especially one with rain, you’re likely to find a dedicated group of volunteers in brightly colored vests along a certain byway west of Petaluma.

The group known as the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade considers these cold, damp nights prime conditions for their mission — a quest to save and preserve a local amphibian population.

The Newt Brigade was formed in 2018, after founder Sally Gale was driving home to her ranch along Chileno Valley Road, a rural, 10-mile route that connects west Petaluma to Marin County. She noticed a cluster of nearly four dozen newts making their way across the pavement to their breeding area at the nearby Laguna Lake, on the other side of the hill where from they reside during the dry season.

Gale couldn’t help but be concerned for their safety as their crossings exposed them to oncoming traffic.

“They come out hundreds of them at a time. It’s pretty special,” Gale said. “But you know, they’re pretty vulnerable at that time.”

In the past three years, Gale has inspired a number of Petaluma and Marin residents and scientists to assist the newts across Chileno Valley Road, which is how the brigade got its name. Ultimately, they hope to apply for and receive a grant to install a more permanent crossing for the traveling newts, such as a tunnel.

“We don’t have a definite plan yet,” Gale said, adding that San Diego-based US Geological Survey scientist Cheryl Brehme is partnering with the brigade to research the terrain in order to recommend the most appropriate type of crossing for the area.

In the meantime, the volunteers pack on their waterproof gear and reflective vests, grab their flashlights and head out to complete their mission. The nightly forays usually take about 2 to 3 hours and happen between late November and early March, the newts’ migration season.

Hundreds of newts make the trek each year, and volunteers not only carry them across the road to avoid getting hit by cars, but they also document their activity and submit information to be posted on inaturalist.org, a social network of citizen scientists used to map and share observations of biodiversity.

“It’s fascinating to see who wants to spend their lives out in the dark saving newts,” said Linda Sheppard, who is in her third year with the volunteer group. “It’s really a brigade of wonderful people.

Newts, which look like a cross between a salamander and a frog, are native to California. While they are not yet on an endangered species list, they remain a “species of concern,” meaning they face habitat and climate threats like many other California amphibians.

Their presence not only maintains local biodiversity, but they are useful for mitigating livestock disease, as they feast on invasive larvae.

Those are among the reasons behind the Bay Area drive to save them.

"Our ecosystems are collapsing,” said volunteer John Crowley in an email. “If we don't start paying attention to the smaller things in nature that need our help the collapse of nature will be inevitable."

Last year, even with less volunteer turnout due to COVID-19 concerns, the group assisted about 2,025 newts to safety, Gale said. So far this migration season, Dec. 12 was the best night on record, with 753 live newts documented. But 30 died during their journey.

The newts’ prime time for crossing to their breeding spot is in drizzly, moist weather with an optimal 55-degree outdoor temperature. Of course, after they’re done breeding, they still have to make their way back to their original home on the hillside. Additionally, their offspring live in the lake for about a year before joining the rest of the population, keeping the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade quite busy.

“Every natural creature is a miracle in itself, it’s a wonder in itself,” Gale said. “Anything we can do to preserve these vulnerable creatures and keep them out of harm’s way is worthwhile.”

For more information

Residents can head to chilenovalleynewtbrigade.org for more facts on newts, or to find out how to help.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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