The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently honored the Red Hills Salamander Habitat Purchase team—a group that includes graduates of the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences—with a Regional Director’s Honor Award for Conservation Partners. The team is working to conserve the Red Hills salamander, a unique, threatened amphibian endemic to a specific region of Alabama, found nowhere else in the world.
An additional award for Conservation Partners was presented to Chuck Sykes, director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fish, or WWF, Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, or ADCNR. Sykes, a 1992 wildlife biology graduate, was honored for the key role he played on this team, as well as his other career accomplishments.
The state of Alabama recently purchased two tracts totaling 4,911 acres of Red Hills salamander habitat in Monroe County, an acquisition made possible by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS, which awarded the ADCNR nearly $9 million in land conservation grants. This purchase is the largest land deal authorized and put together under the Endangered Species Act’s Section 6 program.
On the team, Sykes was joined by fellow School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences alumni Ericha Nix ’02, a wildlife biologist with WFF’s Nongame Wildlife Program; Keith Gauldin ’92, chief of the Wildlife Section of the Alabama Division of WFF; Jeremy Doss ’01, acting chief enforcement officer for the State Lands Division; and Andrew Nix ’93, who recently retired as forester with the WFF’s Wildlife Section. Rounding out the team are State Lands Director Patti Powell-McCurdy and Doug Deaton, an operation support specialist with WFF’s Wildlife Section.
The team’s main goal is to acquire lands in the Red Hills region to protect the Phaeognathus hubrichti, better known as the Red Hills salamander—and ultimately delist it as a threatened species. In 2020 and 2021, the ADCNR was awarded more than $11 million from USFWS grants to conserve the species, said team member Ericha Nix.
“RHS was federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species act 45 years ago, and little progress had been made toward range-wide recovery of the species until now,” Nix said.
Working with conservation partners and willing land sellers, the ADCNR purchased more than 6,600 acres for Red Hills salamander conservation, Nix said. Combined with the Red Hills Complex, the acquired land now totals over 11,000 acres that permanently protect habitat for the Red Hills salamander and other imperiled species, while also providing public access for outdoor recreation activities such as hunting.
The Red Hills salamander was discovered in Butler County in 1960. The dark, large, lungless amphibian is unique not only because of its terrestrial burrowing, but for its extremely narrow global range.
Land conversion is ongoing in the Red Hills region, greatly reducing upland hardwood forest habitat, Nix said. And the past dozen years have brought an upsurge in forestland ownership changes, part of a broader trend caused by the restructuring of the timber industry in the U.S.
Nix said securing large tracts of land for the Red Hills salamander is a great success for protection of the species, but public and private land acquisition efforts alone will not conserve the Red Hills salamander. The team also provides outreach and education efforts, technical assistance and financial incentives to the private landowners—all key components of recovery efforts to protect the Red Hills salamander and other natural resources.
“While we continue to work to protect the species, we are also encouraged by the cooperation and partnerships that allowed for the successful protection of such an important region in Alabama that will be beneficial for all species while also providing great outdoor recreation opportunities for the public,” Nix said.
To recognize the key role Sykes plays on the Red Hills Salamander Habitat Purchase team—as well as his years-long contributions to conservation efforts in Alabama and throughout the Southeast—the USFWS honored him with an individual Honor Award for Conservation Partners.
Chris Blankenship, ADCNR commissioner, said Sykes’ work is well deserved.
“Chuck is a tireless advocate of improving hunting and fishing opportunities and has a true passion for proper management of our vast fish and game resources,” Blankenship said. “His innovative ideas are also helping to modernize conservation efforts in Alabama. Chuck is constantly working to elevate outdoor opportunities for hunters from all backgrounds and experiences.”
The awards were announced by USFWS Southeast Regional Director Leopoldo Miranda during a virtual ceremony in June.
“These recent awards reflect the tenacious efforts of our alumni to conserve wildlife resources in Alabama,” said Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife. “The success of this project exemplifies the leadership and considerable impact of our alumni within the state’s conservation programs.”
(Written by Jamie Anderson)