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Saving The Giant Salamanders Hiding in Appalachian Streams

eastern_hellbender_wikimedia_commons.jpg

Daniel Estrin remembers when he was about eight years old. He was fly fishing with a friend in a stream in New York State. His friend’s father caught something. At first they thought it was a fish. But when he reeled it in, it turned out to be a salamander, but with a huge mouth and weird flaps of skin hanging off its sides.

 “We were shocked,” Estrin said. “ We thought, ‘This animal doesn’t belong here. What is this thing?’ It was enormous, like two feet long. I was a kid at the time – which probably made it seem bigger than it was -- but it was an enormous animal. If you’ve ever found a normal salamander, this was probably 100 times bigger than that.  And it looked like something out of prehistoric times.”

The creature was an eastern hellbender. Despite its ominous name, the hellbender is completely harmless to people, having tiny teeth and soft skin and living quietly under rocks in streams.  Estrin never forgot the magic of finding that reclusive animal.

 

“They look like a salamander, but, you know, on steroids,” Estrin said. “An enormous sized creature with these interesting ripples along their sides that has given them the nickname of the Lasagna Lizard. Or as I’ve seen, ‘Old Lasagna Sides.’”

Almost a half century later, Estrin – now an attorney and advocacy director for the nonprofit Waterkeepers Alliance – took legal action last week to try to save North America’s largest species of salamander.  Working with the Center for Biological Diversity and other allies, Estrin and colleagues filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try to force the agency to designate the Eastern Hellbender as an endangered species – which would trigger a series of legal protections for it.

Populations of hellbenders have declined precipitously across the U.S., especially in their native Appalachian region. In Maryland, for example, there are only an estimated five surviving in the mountains of the western part of the state.  Driving down their numbers have been several factors, including acidic drainage from coal mines, the sedimentation of streams from real estate developments and farms, dam construction, pathogens, and climate change.

Peter Petokas is a biologist and researcher at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania and a national expert on hellbenders. He said other, less discussed factors in the disappearance of hellbenders have been human ignorance and persecution of the animals.

“Well, if you go back to the 1930s in Pennsylvania, there was a concerted effort by sportsmen’s groups to basically exterminate the hellbender from area streams in the mistaken belief that hellbenders fed on their beloved brook trout,” Petokas said. “In fact, hellbenders really don’t associate with trout. They don’t occupy the same kinds of streams.  And they generally don’t feed on fish very much. About 99 percent of their diet is crayfish.”

The Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 to protect the eastern hellbender.  Although the federal agency protected a sub-species and small populations in Arkansas and Missouri, the Trump Administration in 2017 ruled that protecting the Eastern Hellbender in rest of the U.S. was “not warranted” – triggering last week’s legal effort to get that overturned.

“The Trump Administration did a number on the Endangered Species Act,” said Brian Segee, Senior Attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They changed and watered down requirements for everything from listing the species to the preparation of its recovery plans, to the designation of critical habitat.  We’re in court fighting all of those things.”

The Biden Administration has signaled a more supportive and sympathetic attitude toward the Endangered Species Act.  If the new leadership of the Fish and Wildlife Service is open to the data about the decline of the salamanders presented in last week’s notice, Segee said, help could be on the way for the hellbender.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.

 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.