The US Fish and Wildlife Service Awards Endangered Species Status to the Ozark Hellbender
The hellbender can’t get a break. People either love them or hate them. And their survival is at risk from both.
Winning endangered status for an animal species is no easy feat these days, what with the backlash from those who portray all efforts at conservation as job-killers and budget busters. However, in early October of this year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service showed the Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishop) the respect it deserves, by granting it protection under the Endangered Species Act. Unlike most other ESA decisions, the directive stopped short of safeguarding the animal’s habitats in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, for fear it would guide poachers straight to their home territory. In the words of the FWS press release, “the service determined that designating critical habitat under the ESA for the Ozark hellbender is not prudent because the designation would require publication of detailed descriptions of hellbender locations and habitat, making illegal collection for the pet trade more likely.”
Captivated by its size and tetrapodian significance in biological evolutionary theory, collectors from all over the world have loved the Ozark hellbender into near-extinction
The thriving market for the hellbender is one of the major causes of its nearly 80 percent population decline over the past few decades. At present, fewer than 600 of the species remain in the wild. Chances are that the demand from collectors will increase as they grow rarer.
The beleaguered amphibian also faces threats from disease and habitat loss, sedimentation from ore and gravel mining and poor water quality. Moreover, the scarcity of young specimens among the hellbender population may suggest problems with their ability to survive to maturity. (Hellbenders can live up to 50 years.) There is also concern that contamination of its water supply from pharmaceuticals – specifically estrogen – may have destroyed its ability to reproduce altogether by lowering the male animals’ sperm count. And if all that isn’t bad enough, the lethal chytrid fungus – a culprit in several amphibian extinctions – has recently been detected in hellbenders.
Beautiful to some, repulsive to others
The mottled gray and greenish-brown Ozark hellbender can grow up to two feet in length. They have large tails, stubby legs and tiny eyes that peer upward from flattened, viscous bodies that allow them to shape shift their way through the streams and rivers. To anglers and other outdoor types, the giant salamander looks like nothing so much as a big slab of undulating phlegm. Their unlovely looks have led to all sorts of unjustified vilification. It is rumored, for example, that they have poisonous spikes on their legs that are deadly to humans. They are also blamed for the reduction of game fish that share their limited aquatic universe. In reality, the hellbender is a gentle creature – harmless to all but the minnows and crawfish that make up the greater part of its diet. Yet mutilated hellbender carcasses can be found along their aquatic routes – the result of indiscriminate killing by anglers who hook them by mistake and don’t bother to put them back in the water. Others simply want to get a closer look at this improbable creature, which they accomplish by killing first.
Hope for the Hellbender
In an effort to isolate and reverse the causes of hellbender decline, the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Fish and Wildlife Service has brought together other conservation agencies, universities and public zoos to form the Ozark Hellbender Working Group. With the predominant thinking being that the hellbender’s habitat is currently too toxic for it to survive, the St. Louis Zoo has established a captive breeding program wherein young hellbenders can be used in research and hopefully be reintroduced into their native habitat.
Despite the welcome intervention of USFWS, time is running out for this unique animal found nowhere else in the world but in the United States. If left to slither along on its present downward spiral, the Ozark hellbender could be extinct within 20 years.