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STANFORD -- Citing concern for the breeding ground of the rare California tiger salamander, the Stanford Axe Committee has canceled plans for this November's Big Game bonfire, the traditional campus warm-up for the annual Stanford-Cal football game.
The bonfire is held each year on the dry Lake Lagunita lakebed, near Junipero Serra Boulevard on the Stanford campus. But biologists now believe that the yellow and black amphibians lay their eggs in the lakebed mud and may remain in deep cracks after the lake has dried.
"It was a tough decision; the bonfire is a huge part of Big Game Week," said senior Steve Zika, chairman of the Axe Committee (which is planning festivities for the Nov. 20 Cardinal-Bears showdown). "But if you consider the possible long-term impacts, if any, I think we made the right decision."
Big Game bonfires at Stanford date back to 1898. The practice was halted from 1976 through 1985 because of crowd control concerns and poor safety in construction practices (students were injured building the 1976 pyre). The bonfire was canceled in 1989 because of a lack of student funding.
In recent years, the bonfire has been held on the Thursday night before Big Game, accompanied by a band rally and appearances by football coaches, senior football players and cheerleaders.
The evening culminates with the lighting of a 50-foot drywood pyre. Flames typically reach 250 feet and are highlighted by aerial fireworks.
Zika said that the Axe Committee now is working hard to plan an event that would take the place of this year's bonfire. "We've talked about various formats and venues surrounding the traditional football rally," Zika said. "We intend to carry on the bonfire tradition by including a ceremonial fire in the final format."
This is not the first time California tiger salamanders have proved to be a slippery issue for Stanford planners.
For many years, the amphibians were thought to be extinct on the San Francisco peninsula. Then, after heavy rains in the past two winters, hundreds of the 6- to 8-inch spotted creatures magically reappeared on campus, making their way down from the foothills and across Junipero Serra Blvd.
Last winter, as more salamanders appeared, Stanford spent $8,000 to hire biologists from the Coyote Creek Riparian Center in Alviso, Calif., who tried to get a better idea of the campus salamander population and its range.
Those data, coupled with an unexpected drop in demand for on-campus student housing, convinced planners to halt scheduled construction of two new undergraduate residences on the Knoll near the lakebed: a 120-bed suite residence and a 60-bed row house - which, ironically, students hoped would be an environmental theme house.
According to the Coyote Creek biologists, who submitted a draft report on the population last June, salamanders lucky enough to survive unflattened after the Junipero Serra crossing go on to lay their eggs in the lakebed mud.
They apparently mature during the spring and summer in storm drains or ground squirrel holes about three to four feet deep, coming out at night to feed on crickets.
"The big question this fall is where the adult salamanders are," said Alan Launer, a postdoctoral researcher with Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology, who has taken an interest in the amphibians' plight.
"We're not sure, but it could be that a lot of salamanders that hang around the full lake hide down in cracks in the mud when the lake dries up." If that's true, he said, then a bonfire "would wipe out a large number of them," especially if they climb up and hide inside the pyre as it's being constructed.
Stanford-hired biologists will continue their study of the salamanders on campus once the next rainy season starts. The creatures are not yet on the state's endangered species list, but they are being considered. (A University of California-Davis research group already has sued the federal government to speed up their listing in Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties.)
If they are listed as endangered here, Stanford intends to come up with a formal habitat conservation plan that allows the salamander to live and breed in peace without worrying about bonfires, charity mud-volleyball tournaments, or other lakebed calamities.
Construction of breeding ponds in the foothills, or even "salamander crossing" points across Junipero Serra Boulevard - essentially trenches covered by grates - also may be considered, Launer said.
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