Douglas County's salamanders will get their own crossing guards.
The Save the Wakarusa Wetlands coalition is rounding up volunteers to help the small creatures cross 31st Street, the busy roadway that separates them from their breeding grounds.
"We know that we're not going to save all of them," said Kelly Barth, a freelance writer who plans to help the salamanders. "The ones that we do save - it will be important to them."
The volunteers hope to save the animals, one specimen at a time. Their work will help the amphibians, but it also is a way to stand up for the wildlife threatened by growth, said Michael Caron, executive director of the wetlands coalition and organizer of the First Annual Amphibians Rescue Night.
A proposed stretch of the South Lawrence Trafficway would run through the Baker Wetlands, the salamanders' home.
Smallmouth salamanders - named for their short heads and tiny mouths - live in the moisture-rich refuge of the wetlands along 31st Street between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue. They're not often visible by day, preferring the shelter of moist cover or the underground realm where they feast on earthworms and other things.
Each year, in the night hours when the first cool rains of approaching spring come, they take to the roadway - males first, then egg-laden females.
It can be quite a sight, said Ginny Weatherman, a Kansas University student who loves the salamanders and has worked to help them.
"If you look at a salamander, they look like they're always smiling at you," she said. "And they can't bite you."
According to Joseph Collins, an expert on these matters, the creatures pick rainy night hours for their crossing because few of their predators - raccoons or other mammals or garter snakes - are inclined to venture out to get them.
The smallmouth salamanders aren't alone. American toads and Plains Leopard frogs have been known to bounce along the roadside nearby.
All are potential victims of unheeding motorists.
"They're being slaughtered," said Collins, adjunct herpetologist with the Kansas Biological Survey at KU.
The roadway after a busy night can be littered by the flattened creatures.
"It looks like road pizza," Collins said.
But those that make it across go on to procreate. The eggs are fertilized. And eventually, baby salamanders - the length of a pinkie finger - emerge.
Then the salamanders catch another rainstorm and head back across the roadway, migration completed.
For years, when there was little traffic on 31st Street, the salamanders' migration was uneventful, Collins said, but heavier traffic has made the trek more treacherous.
Salamanders in other states have faced similar threats, and environmentalists have stepped up to help.
Collins said populations farther inside the wetlands were doing OK, but the ones near the roadside were in trouble.
"They can't keep getting run over, year after year," he said. "It's going to cut into the population."
The local group plans to meet at 7 p.m. on the next rainy night. The only thing that will stop them is lightning, ice or even the possibility of ice.
They'll wear reflective clothing and carry buckets decorated with reflective tape. And one by one, they'll pick up the little salamanders, set them in a bucket and carry them across the road.
"I'm sure they'll have a terrifying ride across the street in a bucket," Barth said. "But they won't be dead."
How to help
On the next rainy night, grab rain gear, a bucket and flashlights. Head to the main entrance to the Baker Wetlands on 31st Street between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue. Volunteers will help pick up the salamanders and send them in the directions they're going. The event is the "First Annual Amphibians Rescue Night." If there is lightning or icy conditions, the event will be postponed until the next rainy night. For safety, do not bring children and wear light, bright colors.
For information, contact Michael Caron at firstname.lastname@example.org.