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For Immediate Release, September 24, 2013

Contact:  Collette Adkins Giese, (651) 955-3821

New Agreement Will Speed Endangered Species Act Protection for North America's Largest Salamander

Eastern Hellbender Suffering From Water Pollution, Dams

NASHVILLE, Tenn.— The Center for Biological Diversity reached a settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service late Monday giving the agency five years to consider whether to protect a giant salamander called the eastern hellbender under the Endangered Species Act. Once found in streams across the eastern United States, this fully aquatic salamander, which can grow more than 2 feet long, is threatened with extinction by water pollution and dams.

“These big salamanders are in big trouble, but the Endangered Species Act can save them,” said Center lawyer and biologist Collette Adkins Giese. “Protecting the hellbender and its habitat under the Endangered Species Act will help protect water quality for all of us.”

Hellbender populations are in sharp decline across the eastern United States, and it is unknown in how many states the large amphibian still survives. States in its range include New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

In response to a petition from the Center, the Fish and Wildlife Service found in 2011 that eastern hellbenders may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Center sued when the agency failed to make a final decision within one year, as the Endangered Species Act requires. Under Monday’s agreement the eastern hellbender will get a protection decision in fiscal year 2018.

The hellbender is one of 10 species that the Center prioritized for protection this year under a 2011 multi-species settlement agreement with the Service. Monday’s agreement gives the eastern hellbender a place in the long line of species awaiting protection decisions.  

“Although eastern hellbenders still face a long wait for Endangered Species Act protection, this agreement provides a deadline that ensures they’ll get considered for these lifesaving protections before it’s too late,” said Adkins Giese. “And in the meantime, I’m hopeful that the Fish and Wildlife Service, states, scientists and others will ramp up efforts to study and conserve the hellbender.”

Because their permeable skins absorb contaminants from polluted waterways, the primary threat to eastern hellbenders is declining water quality due to human activities such as mining, agriculture and animal operations. In highly polluted waters, hellbenders develop dramatic skin lesions. Channelization and impoundments also threaten the salamanders.

Ancient animals that have changed very little over time, hellbenders are uniquely adapted to aquatic life. They have paddle-like tails for swimming and flattened bodies and heads that fit in crevices and allow them to cling to the river bottom. Numerous folds of skin on their sides allow increased oxygen absorption from the water. They have lidless eyes and largely rely on vibrations and scents for communication and foraging; they secrete toxic slime to ward off predators but are not poisonous to humans. Hellbenders forage at night, preying on crayfish, insects, dead fish and other amphibians, and are in turn eaten by fish, turtles and snakes.

The eastern hellbender is one of two hellbender subspecies. The other, the Ozark hellbender, is found in streams in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri and was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2011. Hellbenders are known by a number of colorful common names, including “alligator of the mountains,” “big water lizard,” “devil dog,” “mud devil,” “walking catfish,” “water dog” and “snot otter.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 625,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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