Steps Toward Saving Salamanders Are Set in Motion

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 would come to protect the Farm-famous amphibian.

September 2023

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Steps Toward Saving Salamanders Are Set in Motion

Photo: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

On a warm, rainy night in the winter of 1990, biologists Mike Westphal and Rich Seymour were driving down Junipero Serra Boulevard, scouring the street for hints of movement, when Westphal slammed on the brakes. Waddling across the wet roadway was a California tiger salamander, a species that hadn’t been reported on campus in decades. Farther down: a graveyard of “deaders” flattened by cars. This was a problem.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was enacted to provide a process for identifying and conserving at-risk animals and plants, and restricts the use of their habitats to activities permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS). “You get a listed [species] on your central campus without a permit, and you’ve got some issues,” says Alan Launer, ’81, MS ’82, Stanford’s director of conservation planning. Ambystoma californiense wasn’t yet on the list, but the university needed a strategy to protect the mud dweller, lest routine operations—replacing aging pipes or evicting salamanders from utility boxes—become prohibited by law. 

By 2004, when the salamanders were declared threatened (a less grave status than endangered), the university had designated protected space for the amphibians, discontinued the annual Big Game bonfire at Lake Lagunita, built wildlife tunnels under Junipero Serra Boulevard, and dug eight breeding ponds in the Foothills. Its agreement with the F&WS also covers the threatened California red-legged frog and “an intergrade population of garter snake.”

With luck, this fall hundreds of juvenile tiger salamanders will totter from Lake Lag to the Foothills as members of what is believed to be the last remaining population on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

Vintage 1973 Collection

Stanford is 50! It turns out we’re not the only one. Walk with us down memory lane as we sample some of the wonders and horrors of the 1973–74 academic year on the Farm, and in the world around.

Start the Presses

Were Golden

89 Rodins Find a New Home

A Godfather Delivers a Ransom Payment

A Splashy Debut

The Winds of Freedom

SLE Club

‘Until the Birds Took Over the Singing’

The Poet and the Coup

Steps Toward Saving Salamanders Are Set in Motion

A Sequel for Supersonic Flight?

The First Stanford Astronaut Returns from Space

The End of the Nursing Education Era

Keepers of the Flame

50 Years After the Stanford Murders, Three of Four Families Have Answers

A Classic Is Released

A Young Lawyer Wins an Educational Equity Case

Joining the Force


The Axe Is Stolen One Last Time

Fit to Be Tried

For Commencement Speaker, a Watergate Special Prosecutor

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