Salamanders Influence IKEA Development in Oak Creek

Apr 27, 2018

If you have plans to visit the giant IKEA store in Oak Creek, be on the lookout for a 3-foot-tall wooden fence. It's not just for show, it is a wall that will help keep nearby salamanders from wandering into the store's parking lot.

The structure is called an amphibian exclusion barrier and divides Falk Park from IKEA.

At the time of the store's construction, Julia Robson was natural areas coordinator with the Milwaukee County Parks. She knows the 222-acre park well.

One of the tiger salamanders hanging out in Falk Park.
Credit Julia Robson

Robson explains why it was so important to build a barrier between the store and the park: "One of the habits of our pond-breeding amphibians is that in spring they migrate from areas where they’ve overwintered to their wetlands. And they will travel far and wide – sometimes several hundred meters to get there... So what you see is mass mortality events from amphibians crossing roads to get to their breeding wetlands."

She adds data built a persuasive case.

“We knew that there were tiger salamanders breeding in this pond next to this development," Robson explains. It's one of only three tiger salamander populations breeding in Milwaukee County.

So the fence was built with the cost woven into the development deal that made the IKEA possible.

There’s more to the wall than meets the eye. Salamanders like to burrow, so the wall extends one foot underground to prevent the creatures from tunneling their way into danger. “We consulted with a lot of local herpetologists and as well as other project managers. This is what we came up with. It extends all the way down to the end of the park,” Robson says.

She credits a dedicated crew of citizen scientists for making the exclusion barrier a reality. The volunteers are part of the wetland monitoring program Robson created four years ago. Every year, it attracts more volunteers.

Robson says they have already proven to be invaluable – documenting wildlife here in Falk Park and other natural areas. “Each year we have volunteers monitor about 30 different wetlands, and this year it’s going to be our record year – we’re doing about 49 different wetlands,” she says.

Julia Robson instructs wetland monitoring volunteers in the pond where tiger salamanders breed. IKEA is in background.
Credit Susan Bence

Not only did the team discover tiger salamanders, but also an even rarer spotted salamander. "A volunteer found the first record of a spotted salamander in Milwaukee since the 1930s.” And, the list goes on. “Several populations of the rarest crayfish in the state – the digger crayfish – were all discovered by volunteers through this program," Robson adds.

She says Falk Park is a great place to inspire volunteers.  The park brims over with ephemeral wetlands – the kind that holds water in the spring and early summer or after heavy rains – then tends to dry up by late summers.

“It gives the volunteers the opportunity one, to see what these ephemeral wetlands are like… what kind of wildlife we find in them, but then also we do hear the freeway and you’re reminded...that you can still find these gems of natural resources in an urban park system,” Robson says.

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