Newt crossing leads to temporary closure of Tilden Park road

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The beginning of newt mating season marks the end of the road for South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park.

From Oct. 31 through March 31 of next year, South Park Drive will be closed to all automobile traffic in order to protect the thousands of newts that cross the road every year. According to a statement from the East Bay Regional Park District, bicyclists and pedestrians are still allowed on the road, but are asked to “proceed slowly and avoid newts crossing the road,” and keep dogs away from newts as their skin contains toxins.

A 1989 UC Berkeley study found that South Park Drive cuts across the migration routes of the California newt, and cars cause the death of “thousands of newts” each year. The park district began closing the road more than 20 years ago, after the study’s results led to public pressure.

“It took quite a bit of lobbying to get them to close the road,” said Holly Forbes, a garden curator for UC Botanical Garden. “It’s a concerted effort to protect the wildlife.”

The California newt’s populations have declined, and the newt is currently a “Species of Special Concern,” according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

When the rains start, Forbes said the newts begin to move to “breeding pools” across the road.

Paul Licht, director emeritus of the UC Botanical Garden, said newts are inactive during summer and spring because of the lack of moisture in the air.

“Newts are very seasonal,” Licht said. “When it starts to rain, they have to start feeding and fatten up in preparation for breeding.”

According to David Wake, campus professor of integrative biology, the road closure could be more effective if it started in mid-October, when the largest groups of newts emerge from underground.

“The dates of closure of the road were a compromise, and it’s a bad compromise,” Wake said. “The newts don’t respond to our laws; they respond to environmental realities. There used to be enormous numbers of newts. The numbers are way down because of the slaughters that happen in the beginning of the season.”

Wake, however, said this year is “unusual” because the first rain came after a hot day and was followed by another long, dry period. He anticipates the newts will move this Thursday or Friday when the rain returns.

Licht said amphibians, frogs in particular, are currently experiencing massive die-offs from a fungal disease. The fungus — called the “chytrid fungus” — was recently found in newts in Tilden Park, according to Licht.

“Unfortunately, even if (the closure has) helped, that doesn’t mean the numbers have been increasing,” Licht said. “You can’t just do one thing and expect it to work, but it helps.”

Contact Anjali Shrivastava at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anjalii_shrivas.