Things Are Looking Up for America's Hellbenders

Federal judge's ruling is a 'great victory' for country's biggest salamander species
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 10, 2023 7:00 AM CDT
Things Are Looking Up for America's Hellbenders
Hellbenders remain in the larval stage until they are two years old and reach sexual maturity at seven or eight.   (Indiana DNR)

America's largest salamander has disappeared from much of its historic range in the eastern US, but things are starting to look up for the hellbender. A federal judge has overturned a 2019 US Fish and Wildlife Service ruling that the hellbender doesn't warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, the AP reports. US District Judge Lewis J. Liman ordered a new assessment of the salamander's endangered status, a move that Elise Bennett at the Center for Biological Diversity called a "lifesaving victory for hellbenders and their declining freshwater habitats." Hellbenders can be found in streams and rivers from New York to Alabama, but their numbers have declined steeply due to habitat loss and poor water quality.

The CBD notes that Fish and Wildlife ruled against protection in 2019 despite finding that around 80% of populations have been lost or are in decline. "Hellbenders are like the canary in the coal mine. This ancient species is now almost gone from much of Appalachian streams because they are incredibly sensitive to pollutants and the destruction of their habitats when smothered by sediment," says Robin Broder, acting executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. He describes Liman's ruling as a "great victory," not just for the hellbender," but for all species that rely on clean, free-flowing streams and rivers

The hellbender, a completely aquatic species, can grow to be more than two feet long, with a lifespan estimated at 25 to 30 years and possibly much longer. Its regional nicknames include "devil dog," "snot otter," "Allegheny river monster," "grampus" and "old lasagna sides," per the CBD. In an encouraging sign for the species, biologists conducting a routine survey in southern Indiana recently found a very young hellbender in the Blue River, WEHT reports. The larva, estimated to be eight months old, is the first juvenile hellbender reported in the river for 40 years.

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A reintroduction program that uses eggs from healthy populations has been releasing hellbenders in the area when they are old enough to dodge predators like fish and water snakes. Biologists say they are thrilled by the evidence that hellbenders in the area are reproducing in the wild. "This finding, the result of nearly two decades of collective effort, signifies a milestone for our conservation program," says Rod Williams, director of the Help the Hellbender lab at Purdue University. "While we have much left to do, we have evidence our approach is working." (More salamanders stories.)

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