Hellbender

As of early March, the Missouri distinct population segment of the eastern hellbender, the largest salamander in North America, has been officially listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act, a species may be considered endangered as nominated through public petitions or through the candidate assessment process that determines whether a species meets any of the listed criteria.

This rule determined by the USFWS was published in the Federal Register on March 9. The rule will go into effect on April 8 if it becomes a final rule, a published document that can be viewed at regulations.gov.

“As soon as the species gets listed, we start working to develop a recovery plan that's basically an outline of what we think is going to be needed to recover the species,” Trisha Crabill, threatened and endangered species coordinator of the USFWS, said.

Along with efforts by landowners, the USFWS will work with partners including the Missouri Department of Conservation, Mark Twain Forest Service, Saint Louis Zoo and Fort Leonard Wood in order to ensure listed species gets the protection they need to avoid extinction.

According to Crabill, this aquatic salamander, sometimes referred to as “old lasagna sides,” has a set of lungs but is able to breathe through wrinkly skin folds along their bodies that allow for an increase in surface area.

Consequently, the hellbender salamander is at an increased need for dissolved oxygen and clean water, especially as segmentation, pollution and climate change affect their environment, according to Crabill.

“(A listing is) not always an automatic way to save the species; there's still a lot of things that need to be done including efforts by partners and sometimes landowners, but what a listing can do is provide some protections for the species,” Crabill said. “It focuses attention on the species to let people know the species is in trouble.”

Crabill said the USFWS is also working behind the scenes with various experts to gather range-wide data on eastern hellbenders.

“We use that information to characterize how this species is doing now and also how we think it will do in the future,” Crabill said.

Missouri State University has its own connection to the eastern hellbenders in Missouri.

Alicia Mathis, department head of biology, collaborated with former biology professor and hellbender researcher Robert Wilkinson Jr. to study the decline of eastern hellbender populations in the 1990s.

“We found that every stream in Missouri that had hellbenders showed population declines of 75- 90% and that there was a particular loss of young individuals,” Mathis said.

When Wilkinson retired soon after the study, Mathis inherited the long history of hellbender research at MSU, where she continues to study the behavior and ecology of salamanders and small fish as needed by agencies such as the USFWS at the federal and state levels.

Significant contributors to wildlife protections are not exclusive to services and researchers.

According to Crabill, improving water quality, reducing the amount of sedimentation entering streams, controlling erosion and leaving the riparian corridor along streams intact are all actions that Missourians can take to help the outlook of the Missouri population of eastern hellbenders.

 

Follow Tess Marquart on Twitter, @tessmarquart

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