The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cars were killing salamanders. A student got the road closed to save them.

Once residents in Marquette, Mich., learned about the critters, they fell in love and started a Salamander Days festival.

The city of Marquette, Mich., now closes it's salamander-crossing road to stop them from getting killed, and also has started a festival to celebrate them. (Superior Watershed Partnership)
Placeholder while article actions load

Eli Bieri noticed something disturbing as he walked through Presque Isle Park in Marquette, Mich., a few years ago.

Several dozen blue-spotted salamanders had been smashed by cars while they were crossing from the forest to the wetlands on the other side of the road during their annual migration to breed and lay eggs.

“They were all over the road, squished flat by tires,” said Bieri, 23, then a freshman ecology student at Northern Michigan University in the Upper Peninsula.

“I’ve always loved salamanders, and it really made me sad,” he said about the 4-inch, bug-eyed amphibians, a common species in east-central North America.

On that drizzly night in 2018, he said he was the only one in the park to witness the yearly migration that happens over several weeks in the spring.

“I saw them crossing the road en masse,” said Bieri, adding that they go to their breeding ponds when the weather is just right — rainy and 30 to 40 degrees.

The following year, Bieri said he knew he had to do something to help the blue-spotted salamanders that were being crushed by people who drove their cars into the park to stargaze, not knowing any better.

Developers pleaded to buy his island for years. He said no, and in a final rebuff, he gave it to a conservancy.

“I’ve been fascinated by swamps and ponds since I was a kid chasing frogs and turtles, so of course, I was out there,” he said.

Bieri went to the tool he knew best: He started a university research project to figure out how many of the salamanders were being killed by tires in Presque Isle Park every year.

“It’s impossible for a driver to see them at night because they’re black and the asphalt is black,” said Bieri, explaining that the long-tailed salamanders move slowly, increasing their chance of being squashed.

Bieri checked the park road every day for several weeks to see how many salamanders had died during their migration journey.

He got other students to help with his research, and together they tagged salamanders to get a feel for their numbers, he said.

They found about 400 dead salamanders on the road that spring, and learned that many of them were getting wiped out on the park’s main thoroughfare every year, Bieri said.

He released his findings, and upon seeing them, Marquette decided in 2020 to block a quarter-mile section of the park’s main road during migration season, from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

That year, Bieri found only three salamanders flattened by car tires, a big victory.

The road closure now happens every year, and other groups joined the city to help let the public know about the salamander’s plight, including the Superior Watershed Partnership and Northern Michigan University.

Once residents found out about the salamanders, they flocked to the park to see them, leaving their cars in safely designated areas, and searching for the critters on foot, Bieri said.

“Most people didn’t even know they were there,” he said. “I was happy to help share that magic.”

They were prisoners in the Holocaust together. They just reunited.

Now, salamander-watching expeditions are so popular in Marquette that the city has decided to hold its first Salamander Days this spring — six weeks of events including a salamander art show and hikes to learn about the amphibians’ habitat. A local brewery has even come up with a special salamander beer, but it’s golden hued, not blue.

Local resident Dan Barrington, 64, proposed the celebration last year.

“I thought it sounded like a magical idea — I’d been out to watch the migration with my wife and I was mesmerized,” Barrington said. “The salamanders are really sweet and not many people had seen them before.”

He and a friend, Elizabeth “Puck” Bates, took his proposal to Tiina Morin, Marquette’s arts and culture manager, and she was immediately on board, he said. Barrington got to work crafting two giant blue-spotted salamanders from plywood and foam to promote Salamander Days.

Although blue-spotted salamanders are not endangered, they’re an indicator species that can alert humans to problems in the ecosystem, said Tyler Pendrod, a program manager at Superior Watershed Partnership, a lake protection group in Marquette.

“What’s really cool about Eli’s research is that a lot of educational programming has come out of it,” he said. “Children are experiencing nature in a way they never did before. From 10 to 11 at night in April, the parking lot at the park is now packed.”

They thought they unearthed the world’s largest potato. It turned out not to be a potato at all.

Blue-spotted salamanders venture out only in full darkness and they’re best viewed with a flashlight on a rainy night, Bieri said.

He said he is delighted to see families carefully walking along the roadside at night with flashlights, hoping to catch the beginning of the spring migration, when the salamanders come out in droves.

Bieri is missing this year’s salamander celebration because he is on vacation in Fiji. This summer, he plans to start a master’s degree program in Australia.

“I’ll be doing research on frog responses to wildfires,” Bieri said. He added that he eventually hopes to become a wildlife biologist.

“Even though they’re not blue-spotted salamanders, they’re also important and interesting,” he said.

Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.