Endangered Ozark hellbender salamander faces tough odds

Wednesday, October 26, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:18 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 26, 2011
This 8-year-old male Ozark hellbender lives at the St. Louis Zoo. Hellbenders are among the world’s largest salamanders.

COLUMBIA — An 8-year-old Ozark hellbender salamander squirms against the glass of his aquarium.

He circles around a pump that pushes out a small stream of bubbles and positions himself so they brush past his brown mottled sides. Hellbenders breathe through lateral folds of skin that are reminiscent of lasagna noodles; they need cool, flowing water to extract enough oxygen to stay alive.


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He is one of 260 hellbenders that make their home in the basement of the Saint Louis Zoo’s herpetarium building, built in 1927. It’s cool and dark, a bit like being under water, far removed from the North Fork, Current and Eleven Point rivers where Missouri’s Ozark hellbenders make their homes under large riverbed rocks.

Wild hellbenders breed during late September and early October. Mark Wanner, the zoo’s herpetology and aquatics manager, watches his charge from the other side of the glass. He woke up every hour of the previous night to monitor signs of hellbender reproduction.

Since 2002, the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation at the Saint Louis Zoo has been trying to get hellbenders to propagate. Although it has successfully raised eggs found in the wild, none of the captive hellbenders has reproduced.

Wanner is undaunted that the results seem slow to come, and he hopes it will happen this year.

“We’ll do it," he said. "It’s just a matter of time.”

Population crash

The Ozark hellbender, with fossil records dating back 150 million years, is one of four subspecies of the giant salamander. The eastern hellbenders are the only other subspecies to occur in America. They look similar to the Ozarks but are generally slightly larger — Ozark hellbenders can grow to be 2 feet long — and have different spotting. The other two subspecies occur in Japan and China.

By 2007, researchers estimated 590 Ozark hellbenders remained in the wild, a drastic decrease from the estimated 8,000 hellbenders in the 1970s.

When it proposed making the hellbender endangered in September 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited river recreation, sedimentation, logging, gravel mining, brown trout stocking, cattle and dams as threats to the hellbender in Missouri and northern Arkansas.

"Hellbenders are habitat specialists that depend on constant levels of dissolved oxygen, temperature and water flow," Fish and Wildlife concluded in its final ruling on the endangered status of the Ozark hellbender. "Even minor alterations to stream habitat can harm them or affect their ability to reproduce."

Other threats included the potential collection of Ozark hellbenders for the exotic pet trade and an infectious amphibian disease.

Humans affect habitat

Peter Becker, a research coordinator of the Eastern Ozarks Forestry Council, said that clear-cutting and "high-grading" — a practice where loggers select the best and largest trees that have the highest market value — are common throughout the Ozarks.

“There’s lots of logging of going on in the Current and Jacks Fork watersheds,” Becker said.

Logging impacts cited by the Fish and Wildlife Service included the use of unpaved roads, skid trails and fire breaks that contribute to erosion and sedimentation in hellbender rivers.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has developed guidelines to reduce the effects of logging, but those guidelines "lack mandatory requirements" for private forest owners, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its Ozark hellbender endangered species proposal. 

The logging guidelines are suggested, but people can choose whether to follow them — or not.

The spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork rivers in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, have long been a magnet for people in search of an outdoor experience, and those pressures continue to mount.

Faye Walmsley of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways said recreational use of the upper Current River occurs almost all year. December was the only month for which she did not have any record of canoe, kayak, raft or tube rentals.

From rental records, the U.S. Park Service estimates the number of people on the Jacks Fork and Current increased 63 percent between 2008 and 2010, from 81,776 to 130,423.

Those figures only account for people who rented boats from licensed concessionaires, Walmsley said.

There is no count of those who brought their own boats — not to mention the use of access points along the river that are open to vehicles.

Weighing in on the proposal

About 90 people, including representatives from agencies and interest groups,  filed comments with the Fish and Wildlife Service about its intention to put the Ozark hellbender on the endangered species registry. The listing drew unanimous support during a comment period, which was open from Sept. 8 to Nov. 8, 2010. The Fish and Wildlife Service ruled the species will join 421 other animals on the U.S. endangered species list on Oct. 7. 

The endangered status, however, was not accompanied by a "critical habitat" designation that would afford greater oversight of the land-use activities cited as threats. This non-designation drew considerable criticism, particularly from environmental groups.

"I think it would be fair to say ... that critical habitat would impose an extra layer of protection for a species," Bruce Morrison, an attorney with Great Rivers Environmental Law Center in St Louis, said. Morrison signed a letter on his center's behalf during the comment period.

While endangered species status provides protection for an animal, Morrison said,  critical habitat designation comes with a specific geographic area. With critical habitat status, land-use and other activities in that area that are on federal land, receive federal funding or federal permits would require a more thorough review.

Ken Midkiff, a member of the Ozark chapter of the Sierra Club, filed one of the 20 comments that disagreed with the federal decision to not include a critical habitat designation.

"Ozark hellbenders require clear, cool, unpolluted water," Midkiff said. "That's why critical habitat is so important."

He cited the Topeka shiner, a minnow that lived in Boone County and was listed as endangered without a critical habitat designation, as an example of what happens when the designation does not occur. The Topeka shiner has since vanished from local streams, and Midkiff said the species continues to decline elsewhere.

Midkiff believes that protecting the hellbender requires monitoring upstream activities in the watersheds where they live. “You can’t just look at what’s happening right along the banks,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service asserted that designating critical habitat would put the Ozark hellbender at greater risk because it would require the government to release maps of the places where they live, raising the risk of poaching by exotic animal collectors.

No illegal collections of Ozark hellbenders have been documented since the 1980s. The Fish and Wildlife Service singled out a report by Jeff Briggler, the Missouri Department of Conservation herpetologist, about hellbenders being taken from the wild and sold in Asia.

Briggler said a Japanese scientist named Sumio Okada told him during a 2005 visit to the U.S. that Ozark hellbenders were being sold in his country.

Briggler also said he has seen advertisements for the sale of Ozark hellbenders in Japan, but “every picture I’ve seen that has been advertised as Ozark hellbenders have actually been easterns.”

Trisha Crabill, a herpetologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that while most of the illegal collections occurred in the 1980s, her agency didn’t want to contribute to illegal collections. “Just because they’re not catching people doesn’t mean they're not out there,” she said.

Supporters of critical habitat, however, questioned whether the designation would require disclosing specific locations where hellbenders live.

"The Service’s very weak argument in the proposed rule-making is based on the false premise that the service’s database of stream locations where certain concentrations of adult Ozark hellbenders exist would have to be divulged if the agency were to propose the designation of critical habitat," Tony Robyn, vice president and regional director of the National Audubon Society, wrote in a comment on the Fish and Wildlife Service's website. "This is simply not true, and no court has ever ordered the service to proceed in such a manner in the designation of critical habitat for an aquatic riverene species.”

Another approach to conservation

In 1998, the Missouri Department of Conservation provided funds to survey hellbenders throughout the state. When those reports came in, they noticed the numbers were greatly reduced.

Things started to happen in quick succession — the Ozark hellbender was added to the state endangered species list and then to the federal candidate list, and the Ozark Hellbender Working Group was formed.

This group includes experts and scientists from the Conservation Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Saint Louis Zoo. One of the group's major efforts has been the propagation program run by Wanner at the Saint Louis Zoo.

To date, the Missouri Department of Conservation has provided $35,000 to support operations and diseases testing at the Saint Louis Zoo's hellbender efforts. The hope is to get hellbenders to reproduce, let the larvae reach maturity and then release them into their natural habitat.

Despite the Zoo’s careful attempt to artificially recreate hellbender habitat with closely monitored cool temperatures, pumps to move purified water, sprinklers synced to mimic the exact precipitation on hellbender rivers, and lights that flick on or dim to account for brightness and shade, their efforts to get hellbenders to reproduce in captivity have proved unfruitful and challenging.

“I’ll put it this way,” Briggler said, “in the spring of 2007, I didn’t know if we could save the species.”

Researchers have become better at finding eggs in the wild in recent years, Briggler said, giving him a sense of optimism. “I would feel a lot better if we could get them to start reproducing," he said.

Briggler sees hellbender propagation as the species' last and best chance of survival.

“Typically, propagation is kind of your safety net,” Briggler said. “You go to that point if you have to.”

This safety net has bought the hellbenders approximately 10 years,  Briggler said, giving those working on their conservation time to “figure things out.”

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Ken Midkiff October 26, 2011 | 10:24 a.m.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) comment letter stated opposition to designation of Critical Habitat but did not give any reason(s) for this. There are two possibilities:

1. MDC would need to drastically modify its logging practices in the watersheds of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers (the Ozark National Scenic Riverways). Heavy logging – particularly in the Sinkin Creek watershed, a tributary of the Current River – leads to much sedimentation, which, as the article points out, “smothers” the eggs and larvae.

2. MDC has, for years, stocked non-indigenous Brown and Rainbow trout in the Upper Current, Eleven Point (below Greer Springs), and the North Fork (below Twin Bridges). While I am an avid trout angler, if Critical Habitat were designated this practice would need to halted, since there is some evidence that trout eat the eggs and larvae of the Ozark Hellbender.

Finally, it is absolutely NOT necessary, as the USFWS insisted, to identify specific pools where the Ozark Hellbender is known to inhabit. As Tony Robyn of Audubon pointed out in his comment letter, there is NO lawsuit that requires such – this is simply a policy of the USFWS and policies can easily be changed. Example: rather than designating specific area on the North Fork, the USFWS could designate Critical Habitat as the entire segment of the North Fork from Twin Bridges to Norfork Lake (in Arkansas).

Ken Midkiff

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