The Eastern hellbender, a large salamander found across Appalachia, was one of eight species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect under the Endangered Species Act in April. The agency stated that the hellbender, with the exception of the Ozark subspecies in Missouri, is not endangered.
The law defines an endangered species as one that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” After analyzing the hellbender’s primary stressors, which include sedimentation, water quality degradation, habitat destruction and modification and diseases, the federal wildlife agency stated the species is not in danger of extinction anytime soon. Despite the hellbender’s current population decline, the agency expects population sizes to return to stable levels in 10 to 25 years.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation organization, formally petitioned the Fish and Wildlife to protect the hellbender through the Endangered Species Act in 2010. The group raised concerns about the hellbender’s vulnerability, stating that 78 percent of known hellbender populations have disappeared or are in decline.
In a press statement, CBD Attorney Elise Bennett said the lack of protection “flagrantly ignores the reality of the hellbender’s dire situation and gives these imperiled animals a big shove towards extinction.”
The species’ decline is mainly due to chemical and sediment pollution in the water, deforestation and dams, according to the group. Tiny blood vessels in their skin allow the salamanders to breathe by absorbing oxygen from water. They thrive in cold, fast-moving streams, but water contamination disrupts these conditions.
In April, Pennsylvania legislators designated the Eastern hellbender the official state amphibian. Students from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council of Pennsylvania wrote the bill. — By Jamie Tews