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A Santa Rosa biologist is proposing to build tunnels under Stony Point Road to protect California tiger salamanders that are crossing the road to breed.

"I have been doing road surveys since 2000, and it became very apparent there is this wildlife corridor along 1,200 feet of road, and we find a few dozen to 60 salamanders every year crossing the road, and half are dead," said Dave Cook, a senior environmental specialist for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

The Water Agency has applied for a $142,000 grant from Caltrans to put three pieces of pipe under the roadway near Cotati to allow tiger salamanders, an endangered species, to get safely to a pond where they breed.

Tunnels, a foot or two in diameter, have been installed in Southern California, other parts of the United States and in Europe, Cook said.

"Amphibian tunnels work," Cook said. "It is a wildlife passage issue. It functions just like a fish ladder. Fish need to get up a stream, and salamanders need to get across the road."

Tiger salamanders, brightly colored and 8 inches in length, were listed as endangered in Sonoma County in 2003 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The amphibians live in gopher holes, but come out during the first evening rains of winter and migrate as far as a half-mile to breed in ponds.

One such breeding area is near Cotati. On one side of Stony Point Road are the upland grasslands where the tiger salamanders live, and on the other side is the pond where they lay their eggs.

Cook estimates there may be 200 tiger salamanders using that breeding area.

He goes out at night during the first rains of the season to watch tiger salamanders and, in many cases, he will stop traffic on Stony Point to pick them up and carry them across the road.

The morning following the rains, however, he will be back to look for the carcasses of those that didn't make it.

"If we get warm, heavy rain at 5 o'clock on a weekday, during the commute, it's a bloodbath. There are carcasses all over the place," Cook said.

Cook also believes that tiger salamanders have unfairly become a lightning rod for criticism by developers and growth advocates, who complain the endangered species holds up projects.

"If someone said, oh, '30 coho salmon were killed by a public facility last year,' it would make headlines and there would be groups outraged," Cook said. "Thirty tiger salamanders get killed on the road, and no one cares. But this is an endangered species, just like the coho."

Cook said the proposal is to create three tunnels with foot-high walls coming out at angles to act as funnels.

"Tiger salamanders are not good climbers, so it doesn't have to be much of a wall that moves out at an angle from the entrance to direct salamanders to the tunnel," Cook said.

The Coastal Conservancy Commission paid for a $6,000 engineering study, and the Water Agency is applying to Caltrans for $142,000 to put in the tunnels.

Cook said Caltrans has a $10 million fund set aside to deal with the unforeseen impacts of road projects.

Stony Point Road was widened in 1998, and tiger salamanders were not taken into consideration then, Cook said.

You can reach Staff Writer

Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.