The eastern hellbender is not a cute animal. It’s typically a shade of dull brown, with small eyes and folds of loose skin running down the sides of its body. Sometimes it has patches or spots along its slimy back. And while most salamanders top out at several inches long, the eastern hellbender can grow longer than two feet and weigh more than three pounds, making it the largest salamander in the U.S.
Given its size and prehistoric looks, seeing a hellbender in the wild can be startling, but finding them now is more important than ever. Early this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a 10-year study of the species, and while the USFWS ultimately decided not to list the eastern hellbender as an endangered species, scientists involved on the ground level insist the animal is in peril.
“The decline in the species is pretty massive,” said Lori Williams, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which participated in the USFWS study. The purpose of the research was to determine the health of the species across its entire range, spanning from southern New York to North Georgia, with a subspecies known as the Ozark hellbender living in the mountain streams of Missouri and Arkansas. Biologists from each state contributed to the research.
“Overall, populations have declined by about 75 percent from their historic levels,” Williams added, saying that the state of North Carolina started studying the animal in earnest in 2007. Prior to that, there had been small studies of individual streams, but no comprehensive analysis of the species.
A species under threat
The eastern hellbender salamander breathes through its skin and relies on cool, well-oxygenated water, according to the U. S. Forest Service, so it’s particularly susceptible to poor water conditions. As a result, hellbenders are known as a “bioindicator,” a species that signifies the overall health of an ecosystem. But it also means that hellbenders can only thrive in a healthy stream. Chemical pollution, warming water temperatures and river impoundment all severely affect the health of the animal, according to the USFWS, which first noted the species’ range was shrinking in the late ’50s. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered species, the biggest threat facing hellbenders today is sediment runoff from development and agricultural practices.
“Hellbenders require large slabs of rock where males build a nest site for females to lay eggs,” said Ben Prater, Southeast program director for Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that has made salamander protection in the Southeast a priority for the past decade. “Sediment from runoff fills in all those nooks and crannies beneath the rock slab and reduces the amount of available nesting sites.”
According to Williams, the hellbender decline is so profound that some states have lost nearly all of their historical populations. In New York, for instance, hellbenders are only found in two watersheds. In Arkansas and Missouri, the Ozark hellbender has been decimated to the point that it was added to the federal list of endangered species in 2011, a listing confirmed by the USFWS in October 2018. North Carolina actually has the healthiest populations of hellbenders remaining in the United States, according to Williams. The large salamanders can be found in every river basin west of the Eastern Continental Divide in North Carolina, but the animals are still in trouble, with a 30 percent decline in populations within the state since 2007. And finding a single hellbender in a stream isn’t necessarily cause for celebration.
“Hellbenders live for up to 30 years,” Prater said. “Finding an adult in a stream doesn’t tell you if populations are healthy. You might just be seeing the same individual. We might have hellbenders in every watershed in Western North Carolina, but are we getting young hellbenders each year? Are populations robust enough to persist?”
Conservation at work
Last year, the Defenders of Wildlife launched the Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide funding and expertise to landowners interested in restoring habitat on their lands to support healthy hellbender habitat. The program is distributing more than $1 million in funds to landowners in Western North Carolina first. If successful, Defenders of Wildlife could use the projects in North Carolina as a model for hellbender conservation in other areas.
Defenders of Wildlife isn’t the only organization concerned with hellbender conservation. Zoos in Nashville, Tennessee, and St. Louis have practiced captive breeding of the species since 2012. And in Georgia, biologists are creating artificial hellbender nest sites to attract breeding adults.
In North Carolina, the eastern hellbender is listed as a state species of special concern, though the USFWS chose not to list the species as endangered following the 10-year study, citing the abundance of protected land in the Southern Appalachians.
“We do have a lot of public land in North Carolina in particular, which has been the saving grace for hellbenders,” said Williams. “A lot of our headwater streams are protected by national forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but sedimentation and silt pollution is still a problem. Many of our rivers run like chocolate milk after a rain.”
Williams says that even though the hellbender was denied listing as a federally endangered species, the state is still carrying out a survey to determine which watersheds hold healthy, sustainable numbers. She says citizen science is a key component to that survey, and the state has asked hikers and anglers to report hellbender sightings.
“Hundreds of people have alerted us to hellbenders since starting this program in 2010,” Williams said. “There’s still so much basic inventory of the species to do, and anglers in particular can get to places that we simply can’t reach.”
If you spot a hellbender in a stream, Williams asked that you take a picture or video and send it to her via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) along with GPS coordinates and notes about your location. And remember, seeing a hellbender is a good omen.
“Some folks think hellbenders are bad luck, or that they’re dangerous,” Williams says. “We’re really trying to dispel some of those misconceptions. Hellbenders aren’t great predators. They’re not dangerous. They’re just waiting under rocks for crayfish to walk by. They indicate good water quality. A healthy hellbender means a healthy river.”