Decline of the Cheat Mountain Salamander Over a 32-Year Period and the Potential Influence of Competition from a Sympatric Species

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We evaluated trends in occupancy of the Cheat Mountain Salamander (Plethodon nettingi) over a 32-yr period and examined the potential influence of competition by sympatric salamander species on these changes. We conducted surveys at 36 locations along four transects on an elevational gradient in the Appalachian Mountains geographic province of West Virginia, USA. We used occupancy modeling to examine patterns in species distributions for three focal species: P. nettingi, a federally threatened species, the Eastern Red-Backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus), and the Allegheny Mountain Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus ochrophaeus). The probability of occupancy for P. nettingi was considerably lower in 2011 compared to 1978–79 at medium and high elevations (1,169–1,378 m). Additionally, occupancy of P. nettingi was associated negatively with P. cinereus at the highest elevations. These data suggest that these P. nettingi populations have declined and P. cinereus have possibly expanded their vertical distribution. Thus, P. cinereus may be negatively affecting mid- and high-elevation populations of P. nettingi. Alternatively, environmental changes (e.g., habitat disturbance and altered weather patterns) may have contributed to declines of P. nettingi at mid- and high-elevation sites, facilitated by colonization by P. cinereus. Due to the endemic and federally threatened status of P. nettingi, conservation efforts to avoid fragmentation of P. nettingi habitat should be maintained and possibly enhanced, as ecological impacts of environmental changes can be exacerbated in high-elevation habitats.