SAVING THE HELLBENDER
Hellbenders may not be pretty, but these strictly aquatic salamanders are as interesting as their awesome name implies — and they can grow up to two feet long, which makes them the largest North American amphibian. Unfortunately, many of the streams where hellbenders once lived are now too polluted to support the species, which is also threatened by unsustainable collection, persecution by anglers, disease, fish stocking and loss of genetic diversity. As a consequence, the hellbender is facing drastic population declines across its range in the eastern United States.
The Center has been working to secure protections for the hellbender for years. In 2010 we filed a scientific petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list 404 Southeast aquatic, riparian and wetland species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, including the hellbender.
The Ozark hellbender is a subspecies of hellbender native to streams of the Ozark plateau in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. That subspecies languished for nearly a decade on the Service's “candidate list” with dozens of other imperiled animals and plants that have been declared deserving of protection but whose federal safeguards have been postponed indefinitely.
In 2010 the Service finally proposed to list the Ozark hellbender as endangered but refused to grant critical habitat. So the Center filed comments urging the Service to finalize the listing and designate critical habitat for the Ozark hellbender.
Under the landmark agreement the Center reached with the Service to speed up protection decisions for 757 species — including the Ozark hellbender — the agency gave this incredible amphibian the “endangered” status it deserves in 2011.
We're also defending the eastern hellbender. In 2014 the Center and a large coalition of allies filed a petition for New York to put the amphibian's eastern population on the state's endangered species list. In 2013 it agreed to a binding deadline on a protection decision for the eastern hellbender, along with decisions for numerous other species ... but in 2019, under the Trump administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service denied protection.
Finally, in 2021 the Service listed the eastern hellbender's Missouri population as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. This is an important win, but it only came after the Center and allies filed a formal notice of intent to sue over the agency's 2019 decision.
Since all eastern hellbenders need protection, in July 2021 the Center and allies sued to challenge that Trump-era denial, which belies the science showing that nearly 80% of hellbender populations have already been lost or are in decline. We won't give up until North America's largest salamander has the protection it needs.
Check out our press releases to learn more about the Center's actions for hellbenders.