A California newt (right) on South Park Drive, accompanied by a Ensatina salamander. Photo: Alan Shabel
A California newt (right) on South Park Drive, accompanied by a Ensatina salamander. Photo: Alan Shabel

Residents in the Berkeley hills have asked East Bay Regional Park District if it would consider closing a road used by migrating newts earlier than usual, after early rains have brought out the newts and many are being run over by cars.

“With the recent rains, the newts are out in force and are being slaughtered,” said Cindy Fulton who lives on Park Hills Road on Thursday. She said on Tuesday evening a neighbor counted 19, 14 of which had been run over.

The neighbor, Alan Shabel, took a photo of one of the newts (above) which was accompanied by a Ensatina salamander.

South Park Drive in Tilden Park is closed every year between Nov. 1 and April 1 to allow the migrating Taricha tarosa, the California newt, to safely cross the road. The closure does not always correspond precisely with when the newts begin their migration, however. Fulton said last year she and her husband, Stefan Carrieri, observed newts on their journeys as late as May and June.

The Park District said it was looking into whether it could close South Park Drive earlier than scheduled, but it was not likely to happen.

“We sincerely regret any harm that has come to newts who went onto the road after recent rains,” said spokesperson Isa Polt-Jones. “The balancing act for the Park District is to allow public access through the park, while protecting the newts for most of their mating season.” Polt Jones added that if the road were closed earlier, many people would be affected who use the road on a regular basis. “They’re accustomed to using the South Park Road for their commute and they wouldn’t be happy to be on their way to work and find it suddenly closed earlier.”

Carrieri has been taking matters into his own hands, literally, and trying to save the lives of at least a few of the newts threatened by cars on his early morning cycle rides in Tilden Park. Despite the fact he is up there as early as 6:00 a.m. before sunrise, he will dismount his bike and carry a newt across the road if he spots one in the lights of his bike. “I picked up two yesterday,” he said Friday morning. “I put them about three or four feet off the road in the direction they are headed.” Carrieri said he might see about 20 dead newts on a typical outing.

South Park Drive is closed every year from Nov. 1 to April 1 to help prevent deaths of migrating California newts. Photo: Tracey Taylor

David Wake, who has lived in the Park Hills neighborhood since the late 1970s, has been studying salamanders and newts since the late 1950s. Professor of the Graduate School in Integrative Biology and Curator, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, he said newt populations have fallen dramatically in recent years, although the closure of South Park Road has helped.

On a neighborhood listserve Wake wrote: “The movement patterns are not governed by human calendars. Males move with the first substantial rains. They migrate in the direction of the creek.  Females come later. But breeding is not completed until the creeks start receding, late in the rainy season. This means that males get knocked off in late October (our first rains typically arrive during the last two weeks of October), and females get knocked off in early- mid-April, when they leave the stream with our last rains. The closure of the road should be extended for two weeks on either end.  I have made this case for many years, unsuccessfully… The tragedy of the newts is that in most years their breeding is completely unsuccessful.”

The Berkeley Historical Plaque Project has awarded the newt migration site an e-Plaque as a place of interest, although South Park Drive is technically across the county line in Orinda. In the description on its website it warns that the California newt secretes a powerful neurotoxin that is one of the most toxic known to man. “If you pick one up, wash your hands and, no matter how hungry you may be, don’t eat it,” they write.

Polt-Jones at the Park District says the organization went through a long public process to get the Board to agree to close the road from November until the end of March, and to educate the public to expect this closure and plan accordingly. Prof. Wake said there are “powerful forces who are opposed to extension of the closure, or even the closure we have now.”

As it stands, South Park Drive will close on Thursday, Nov. 1. as planned.

“Fortunately for the newts, the forecast for the next few days is for sun,” said Polt-Jones, “which means we probably won’t see many newts crossing the road.”

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...