The long-toed salamander is distinguished by its bright yellow stripe and an extra long fourth toe on its hind feet. ((Parks Canada))

Four miniature tunnels have been built in a national park south of Calgary to save hundreds of migrating salamanders from being squashed to death by traffic.

The special underpasses open this week in Waterton Lakes National Park, about 270 kilometres south of Calgary, to allow long-toed salamanders to safely cross a busy roadway as they migrate to and from Linnet Lake.

The amphibian tunnels — a first for Canada's national parks — are a miniature version of the underpasses and overpasses Parks Canada already uses to help wildlife, including bears, wolves and elk, safely cross highways.

In the early '90s, Parks Canada installed a new sidewalk along the lake and it soon proved to be a major barrier for the salamanders.

"The salamanders were just piling up there against that curb," explained Parks Canada biologist Cyndi Smith. "They were trapped against there and then a lot of them were getting killed."

'For many years, all of us were salamander squashers.' —Beth Towe, resident

At the time, people who lived in the area jumped to the amphibians' rescue.

"Local community members as well as park staff would come out at night on cold, rainy, April nights and actually take buckets … transferring salamanders across the road. You know, it was sort of like a little bucket brigade," recalled Smith.

The last population estimate in 2001 put the amphibians' numbers at about 400, down from an estimated 3,500 in 1994, said Parks Canada.


Parks Canada has built four underpasses to help migrating salamanders cross the road safely. ((Parks Canada))

The nocturnal long-toed salamander, which has a bright yellow stripe and an extra long fourth toe on its hind feet, measures about 13 centimetres long and weighs about six grams.

Though small, the salamanders are a top predator in their ecosystem, said Smith.

The amphibian project will cost $284,000, including construction and a two-year research project to monitor the salamanders' movements and population.

Bear Mountain Motel owner Beth Towe was part of the bucket brigade in the '90s, but she still feels guilty about the demise of so many of the animals.

"For many years, all of us were salamander squashers," she told CBC News. "I shudder at the thought of how many of those wonderful animals we've sent to the other side."