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Project aims to preserve wetland habitat in Bell Acres

Bobby Cherry
| Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015, 8:15 p.m.
Tom Biebighauser, a wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist, measures the hole for the larger of two wetlands during a Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians. Construction was scheduled to take place over two days.
Kristina Serafini | Trib Total Media
Tom Biebighauser, a wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist, measures the hole for the larger of two wetlands during a Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians. Construction was scheduled to take place over two days.
Work begins on the Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Kristina Serafini | Trib Total Media
Work begins on the Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians.
Beyond a pile of dirt, Tom Biebighauser (in vest), a wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist, and others measure the hole for the larger of two wetlands during a Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians. Construction was scheduled to take place over two days.
Kristina Serafini | Trib Total Media
Beyond a pile of dirt, Tom Biebighauser (in vest), a wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist, and others measure the hole for the larger of two wetlands during a Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians. Construction was scheduled to take place over two days.
Tom Biebighauser, a wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist, measures the middle of a hole for the larger of two wetlands during a Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians. Construction was scheduled to take place over two days.
Kristina Serafini | Trib Total Media
Tom Biebighauser, a wildlife biologist and wetland ecologist, measures the middle of a hole for the larger of two wetlands during a Bell Acres wetland restoration project off of Backbone Road near Grouse Lane on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. The project, a joint effort of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Robert Morris University and Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, was started to protect and provide a habitat for Jefferson salamanders and other amphibians. Construction was scheduled to take place over two days.

Saving an uncommon type of salamander in the Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights area happened by accident.

But by spring, at least 100 Jefferson salamanders and other forms of wildlife will have a new pond to call home near Grouse Lane in Bell Acres.

After a sediment pond used as a settling pond for overflow from the Bell Acres Municipal Authority was filled in around the mid- to late-2000s, health inspectors and treatment plant workers began noticing salamanders and frogs dying in sewage in nearby tanks.

The hole the creatures had been using was filled in without anyone “understanding the repercussions to the wildlife who were using it as a breeding habitat,” said Diane Abell, a member of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, a group that has helped to save the species of salamander.

“They had nowhere to breed or go. So they sought out any water and the only water there was was the sewage water in tanks. So they were in the real sewage, and they were dying.”

Construction began last month to recreate a pond for wildlife, in hopes that salamanders next year will begin to breed and use the area.

It took crews two days to create a hole for the pond, and those involved say they expect the pond will be ready by spring to welcome wildlife.

A $10,000 grant from the Allegheny County Conservation District helped make the pond a reality, Abell said.

“It's a very unique habitat restoration project,” conservation district staff member Amy Miller said. “In Allegheny County, we don't have a lot of places like this, so it's great to have a unique species. We have a lot of different groups working together. It's great to see everybody come together for a common goal.”

Along with the conservation district, the watershed group has worked with Robert Morris University associate professor of biology Catie Hannah and students to track and study the lives of salamanders.

“The students get to see things they'd otherwise never get to see,” she said. “Most people never see these salamanders because they're underground and in the forest most of the year. Most people don't know they exist, which is why their habitats get filled in and why they're in trouble. If they lose their breeding habitat, they die. They come back to the same habitat year after year.”

Hannah estimates about 100 salamanders return each year. Students have tracked 80 to 150 of the creatures in the area in the four years the university in Moon has been involved.

The salamanders can seek out new places “but we don't know a whole lot about them because they live such a secretive life,” she said. “So it's hard to say if a salamander is new unless you have these long-term studies like what we are doing.”

Fern Hollow Nature Center's environmental education director, April Claus, credited the joint work of Bell Acres and Sewickley Heights boroughs, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, watershed association, municipal authority, conservation district and Robert Morris University for working together to save the salamanders.

“The real vision for me with the nature center is using this as an educational tool and study site for real research to happen,” she said. “It's been a real nice marriage between industry, environmentalism and education.”

Bobby Cherry is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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