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For Immediate Release, October 5, 2011

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

Ozark Hellbender, North America's Largest Amphibian, Gets Endangered Species Act Protection

COLUMBIA, Mo.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final rule today listing the Ozark hellbender as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The listing is part of a sweeping agreement, signed this summer between the Service and the Center for Biological Diversity, to move protection forward for 757 species. The Ozark hellbender is a subspecies of hellbender — a strictly aquatic salamander that can grow over two feet long — found in streams in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

The primary threat facing Ozark hellbenders is degradation of their aquatic habitats from sources such as mining, fertilizer runoff and animal operations. Yet the Service announced today that it will not designate any “critical habitat” to protect the hellbenders’ essential habitats.

“Protection under the Endangered Species Act will give these animals a fighting chance,” said Collette Adkins Giese, herpetofauna attorney at the Center, which petitioned for the hellbender’s protection in 2004. “And though we’re very pleased the Ozark hellbender’s getting Endangered Species Act protection, we’re disappointed that the Service refused to designate critical habitat, which is a key tool for saving species from extinction.”

Also today, the Service issued a final rule listing the hellbender on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Although the hellbender is protected under state law across most of its range, the salamander’s unique appearance may drive wild collection for sale in the international pet trade. The Appendix III CITES listing means that international trade of hellbenders will now be regulated using an extensive permitting system to prevent trade in illegally acquired animals. Monitoring will also help determine the impact of trade on the species.

The hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) is native to cool, fast-flowing streams of the central and eastern United States, where it is uniquely adapted to its aquatic life. Hellbenders have flattened bodies that fit in crevices and allow them to cling to the river bottom, avoiding strong currents. They also have numerous folds of skin on their sides that allow increased oxygen absorption from the water. Hellbenders go by a startling number of colorful common names, including “alligator of the mountains,” “big water lizard,” “devil dog,” “ground puppy,” “leverian water newt,” “mud devil,” “vulgo,” “walking catfish,” “water dog” and allegedly “snot otter.”

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