In a cool mountain stream deep in the heart of Appalachia on a brilliant, late summer day, I’m searching for a demon. Clad in a wetsuit to ward off the water that’s chilly year-round up here, I peer carefully through my snorkel mask under each large slab of rock I find. I almost don’t see the pair of tiny eyes staring back at me out of a round, slimy, perfectly camouflaged head. I lift my head above the water, spit out my snorkel and shout, “Got one!” as a couple of the other surveyors I’m working with plod over to where I’m pointing down into the water. A few minutes later, the “demon” is wiggling with all his might in my hands, none too amused at the indignity of having been snatched from his den, weighed, measured, and swabbed for disease testing.
The eastern hellbender is of course not an actual demon. But with a name like that and other local monikers just as frightening, you’d be forgiven for thinking so. There are stories that the “devil dog” has toxic slime on his body, or that the “Allegheny alligator” has a poisonous bite. None of the stories are true, and the nicknames are rather unfair in my opinion. This fully aquatic salamander is completely harmless to man and beast alike, unless you happen to be a crayfish. And while it’s not very nice to call a hellbender evil, you wouldn’t go amiss by referring to them as giants or even dinosaurs. At lengths of up to 30 inches, they are the largest North American salamander and the third largest salamander in the world. Hellbenders have inhabited the rivers of the eastern United States for the last 65 million years, where they evolved to be so successful at pulling oxygen from the water through their skin that they stopped needing to use their lungs all together. These unique and fascinating critters were historically widespread and abundant, but surveys across their range like the ones I participate in each summer have revealed that their numbers are falling fast.
Hellbenders require very specific habitat conditions to survive. In addition to clean, oxygen-rich water, they need access to prey, the ability to find mates, and large slab rocks with accessible crevices underneath to make homes and protect maturing eggs. Their permeable skin makes them particularly vulnerable to pollutants and reduced oxygen levels in their environment. Humans have dramatically changed the landscape hellbenders inhabit, leading to declines in habitat and water quality that now threaten their survival. Dams and impoundments isolate populations. Urban development increases runoff, adding sediment and pollutants to sensitive aquatic habitats. Mining activities often deposit heavy metals and other toxins into adjacent waterways. Perhaps no threat is greater in scale than that posed by agriculture.
Without direct intervention, this incredible species could be headed for extinction. Thankfully, humans also hold the key to the hellbender’s recovery. We have the knowledge and the tools we need to restore and protect hellbender habitat. We need to act fast to put those tools into the hands of the people who can put them to best use; private landowners. Most of the species’ historical range occurs on private lands. Without enough well-connected, high-quality habitat on private lands, the hellbender will not recover, yet restoring and protecting privately owned habitat is costly and challenging.
That’s why in 2017, Defenders of Wildlife launched the Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative (SEHCI). SEHCI’s mission is to use science, education, community outreach and on-the-ground habitat restoration to advance hellbender population recovery on private lands in the Southeast. SEHCI partners include universities and zoos; federal, state and local government agencies; local grassroots conservation organizations; environmental consultants and public utilities; and of course, landowners. They are involved in activities from captive breeding animals for eventual reintroduction, to designing nest boxes that will help eggs survive in poor habitat, to enhancing public awareness through youth education programs, and so much more. Through SEHCI, we focus our efforts on identifying priority habitats for restoration on private lands, educating landowners about hellbender conservation, and directly linking landowners with financial support and technical resources in order to make habitat restoration a win-win.
One of our toughest challenges- and greatest opportunities- is finding ways to restore habitat and water quality on agricultural working lands. Many common farming practices lead to loss of riparian buffers, stream bank erosion, and increased sedimentation. Herbicides and pesticides in waterways harm development in younger hellbenders. The US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has been a key SEHCI ally in addressing this challenge. In 2018 we finalized an agreement with NRCS to add hellbenders to their Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) program. WLFW is a unique effort designed to help restore and protect habitat on agricultural lands for a few target species whose populations are in decline. Through WLFW, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to farmers, ranchers and foresters who voluntarily adopt conservation practices on their working lands.
Often these practices provide significant benefits for both producers and wildlife. For example, fencing cattle out of streams minimizes sedimentation and stream bed disturbance for hellbenders while reducing the risk of injuries to livestock and minimizing the loss of farmable acreage to erosion. Planting cover crops can minimize sedimentation and nutrient runoff, keeping hellbender habitat clean, while improving soil quality reduces the cost to farmers of applying fertilizers. NRCS cost share assistance can help to offset 75% or more of the cost of implementing these win-win practices. Right now, this program is available in key watersheds in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, but we are working with NRCS to expand into additional states in over the next few years.
Another big challenge we face is that it is tough to find and work with as many private landowners as we need to really make a difference for hellbenders. As large as our partnership is, we still need “boots on the ground” in many different states and areas in order to be effective. That’s why we were thrilled to learn in late 2018 that our grant proposal to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation was accepted and would provide us with funding to hire four Private Lands Biologists. Their job will be to conduct outreach to landowners, develop on-farm habitat evaluations, and help walk interested landowners through the process of enrolling in Working Lands for Wildlife. Having these partner biologists on the ground will dramatically expand our reach, bringing our habitat restoration efforts to more potential landowners and making it easier for them to participate. We completed the hiring process in early 2019 and all four of them have hit the ground running. We’re so excited about the potential this increased staff capacity will have to help take SEHCI to the next level.
Through observing and interacting with them in their gorgeous native habitat, I’ve developed a true love for these “devil dogs” and a deep commitment to helping bring them back to the landscape they once inhabited. With the help of our new biologists and the valuable work of our many diverse partners, I am hopeful that SEHCI can do just that. We’ve already achieved a lot for a young initiative, but we still have a lot of work to do. Restoring habitat and recovering hellbender populations is a complex conservation challenge with no one simple solution. It will require a sustained investment and many creative approaches. In the coming years we will continue to grow our partnership, target the most important threats to hellbender habitat, and increase our capacity to support voluntary conservation efforts on private lands. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we can bring this awesome animal back from the brink. And I’ll be out in those Appalachian streams, keeping an eye on the little demons.