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Herp-heads wanted in White City

WHITE CITY — After a short hike through a grass plain at the Denman Wildlife Area, Jade Keehn reaches down to flip a strategically placed piece of weathered plywood to discover congress.

Six translucent long-toed salamanders — a group of which is called a “congress” — had called the soft, warm and damp ground under the board home.

They slither around Keehn’s index finger, much to her delight.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” says Keehn, a nongame biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Success. That’s a sweet deal.”

If that makes you go “ew,” read something else.

If you share in Keehn’s glee, then there’s a volunteer opportunity on the horizon to help Keehn identify and quantify salamanders, snakes and other so-called “herps” on the wildlife area deep in the recesses of the White City Industrial Area.

Keehn is about to start the final year of a three-year inventory of reptiles and amphibians — collectively called herptiles or “herps” — on the state-owned wildlife area, and she’s looking for a small congress of like-minded herp-heads to help.

She’s looking for 15 or more people willing to spend at least two hours during at least two days tapping into their inner 12-year-old by systematically flipping plywood boards placed strategically in the wildlife area, and electronically chronicling what they find.

Keehn will lead a free herp walk through portions of the wildlife area from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday for anyone interested in looking for herps along a survey route of plywood stations in the wildlife area.

The walk will also serve as a possible recruiting tool for a study based on 200 plywood sheets placed at 100 areas within the wildlife area since 2018.

People who want to attend Saturday’s free walk must register Friday by calling the wildlife area at 541-826-8774, ext. 232, or email Keehn at jade.e.keehn@state.or.us.

Participants will meet Saturday at the TouVelle Road gate into the wildlife area off Agate Road north of Antelope Road.

Participants should bring water and snacks, and wear close-toed shoes, long pants and bring sunscreen, though forecasts call for possible rain.

The walk will cover less than a mile and most of it is off-trail on flat but uneven terrain, where poison oak and ticks are potential hazards.

Those interested in volunteering for the larger study will have a full day of training March 29.

The larger herp study runs March 7 through May, with each board flipped and its contents surveyed every two weeks.

So far, the study has shown all that is good and not so good for herps in the 1,750-acre wildlife area, which is completely surrounded by Jackson County’s most intense industrial area.

The first two years of the survey showed 11 different reptiles and amphibians living under the plywood, taking advantage of the warmth and dampness in an otherwise harsh Agate Desert spring environment.

Animals from garter snakes and Western skinks to Pacific tree frogs, various lizards and even gopher snakes have been chronicled under the boards, data show.

“We’re in the middle of a pretty intense urban area, but we’re still finding gopher snakes,” Keehn says. “It’s a good sign that we can support species like that in an area surrounded by industrial area.”

But just as telling is that just 8 percent of the time a board is flipped, a herp is found.

This oasis of habitat surrounded by massive habitat disturbance isn’t recruiting new critters from outlying areas, Keehn says.

“It speaks to the isolation,” Keehn says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jade Keehn, Wildlife Habitat Biologist at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, flips over a board looking while looking for herps at the Denman Wildlife Area on Thursday.Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
A long-toed salamanders was found under a board by Jade Keehn, Wildlife Habitat Biologist at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, at the Denman Wildlife Refuge.Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune