If you are unfamiliar with hellbenders, or your imagination starts to run wild just hearing that name, let me tell you a little bit about the United States’ largest salamander species, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis. Hellbenders, also called devil dogs, lasagna lizards, snot otters and other funny nicknames, are harmless and prefer to live unnoticed in fast-flowing, pristine rivers and rocky mountain streams from southern New York to northern Alabama. Primarily nocturnal, they hunt crayfish at night and spend most of the day under rocks at the bottom of their freshwater habitats. Unfortunately, these amphibians are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation from urbanization, pollution, agricultural encroachment and streamside erosion.
The Missouri Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of the eastern hellbender will soon be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But the rest of the hellbender population is not federally protected, despite numbers trending downward since at least the 1950s, with approximately 78% of the total population experiencing active decline or extirpation. Hellbender populations are densest in rocky, mountain streams, most of which flow through national forests, but hellbenders once did well in more middle-elevation streams across much of the fertile land of the Southeast before agricultural development increased. Today, the overwhelming majority of the hellbender’s historical range now falls on privately owned land, making private lands conservation essential to hellbender recovery.
To help hellbenders recover, Defenders came up with the idea in 2017 to partner with the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to engage private landowners in hellbender education and habitat restoration in a project known as the Southeast Hellbender Conservation Initiative (SEHCI). Kat Diersen, Defenders’ resident hellbender expert and herpetology enthusiast, explains that SEHCI “works to bring Farm Bill dollars to key watersheds where we can restore healthy habitat for hellbender salamanders on working farms. This once abundant species is in severe decline across almost all of its range, and partnering with farmers whose lands historically provided habitat is essential to recovery.”
I recently sat down for a virtual chat with Morgan Harris, a SEHCI private lands biologist, to talk private lands conservation and hellbender recovery efforts. Morgan kindly explained to me the complexities of balancing relationships with NRCS and private landowners (many of whom are regional farmers) and how SEHCI does its best to avoid having landowners pay for conservation project costs out of their own pockets.
The SEHCI team directs outreach toward specific landowners in the Southeast and engages in extensive conservation planning that considers what is needed to improve wildlife habitat and control erosion. A portion of SEHCI private lands conservation project costs are paid for by NRCS, which has a framework for supporting wildlife conservation practices on agricultural lands through its Working Lands for Wildlife program, but SEHCI is an entirely new initiative for a species with very specific requirements, and NRCS’s conservation funding framework was not necessarily built to accommodate it. That means some of the most difficult aspects of the work include locating the funds required to bridge the gap between what NRCS pays and what individual landowners need to accomplish specific hellbender conservation goals.
Some of SEHCI’s biggest wins include the creation of a NRCS hellbender private lands conservation fund pool in North Carolina, and “aquatic species” fund pools in Tennessee and Virginia that allow landowners located in watersheds deemed high priority for hellbender conservation to apply for conservation program assistance. In North Carolina, SEHCI biologists succeeded in getting 11 landowner applications into the newly created pool in the first year.
Morgan informed me that private landowners with resident hellbenders in Western North Carolina generally know what the species is, but individual attitudes toward these devil dogs vary. Interestingly, SEHCI biologists have heard numerous multigenerational farmer stories about the noticeable decline in hellbender populations through the ages, but farmers may be unaware of the general catalysts for the decrease in hellbender numbers. This is one of the many reasons why engaging with private landowners on conservation efforts is so imperative: It provides private landowners with accessible information and many landowners are typically eager to help, as long as the outcome is a win-win.
A significant portion of streamside habitat is losing surrounding trees, which weakens the integrity of the stream banks and leads to erosion and higher stream temperatures due to lack of a tree canopy. Erosion is detrimental to our beloved snot otters, who breathe through their skin and require cool, well-oxygenated water in their habitats. The accumulation of silt can destroy hellbender habitat by in-filling rock crevices used for hiding, nesting and lowering aquatic oxygen levels. Erosion is also detrimental to farmers, who can lose 10 to 20 feet of stream bank a year, threatening their fields and infrastructure. One way to restore hellbender habitat is to install riparian buffers by planting trees and shrubs along stream banks. The roots of the plants in the riparian buffer zones reinforce the stream bank’s integrity and help to prevent erosion. They also provide shade and enrich the soil with nutrients, encouraging biodiversity.
During our discussion, Morgan made sure to distinguish between livestock farmers and row crop farmers. In Morgan’s experience, livestock farmers have an easier time engaging in hellbender conservation practices, as they actively seek to avoid streamside erosion on their properties because such erosion poses a physical threat to their livestock (cattle tend to wade into streams and exacerbate the erosion process). Indeed, some livestock farmers seek out SEHCI and the NRCS, as both can offer funding for the fencing in of livestock, and many cattle producers see the value in maintaining a clean and ever-present water source on their property. On the other hand, row crop producers have a more difficult time relinquishing streamside land acreage to bolster hellbender conservation measures, as their profit is wholly dependent upon their seasonal yield, which, in turn, is reliant upon suitable planting acreage.
When I asked him how SEHCI brings about win-win outcomes for landowners and hellbenders, Morgan responded that different approaches for row croppers and cattle producers are necessary. Luckily for hellbenders, sustainable efficiency-increasing measures on livestock farms tend to also aid in hellbender conservation. Regarding row croppers, SEHCI biologists suggest that the planting of pollinator-friendly plant species in their riparian buffer zones is shown to increase production in their crop fields. Essentially, what the farmers lose in acreage, they may gain in increased pollinator services. According to Morgan, one of the more cumbersome tasks involves finding a balance between supporting agricultural production and protecting riparian forests. The SEHCI team is currently working to develop more economically attractive incentives for row croppers, and they have some exciting ideas in the works!
The ins and outs of private lands conservation are tricky, and this niche area of the conservation world faces many economic and bureaucratic challenges. As we push on in these challenging times, the necessity for financial incentive programs is made obvious, as the socioeconomic status of many rural farmers does not leave much room for personally funded conservation initiatives. Morgan and his fellow SEHCI biologists have witnessed firsthand the willingness of private landowners to engage in SEHCI’s mission, and this partnership is making great strides in protecting both freshwater habitats and Eastern hellbenders.