Washington, D.C. – infoZine – Citing threats that could lead to extinction of one of the world’s largest salamanders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to protect the Ozark hellbender as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Ozark hellbender, which grows to lengths up to 2 feet, inhabits the White River system in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.
Under the ESA, an endangered species is any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Ozark hellbender populations have declined an estimated 75 percent since the 1980s, with only about 590 individuals remaining in the wild. Most likely, numbers have dropped because of habitat loss resulting from impoundments, ore and gravel mining, sedimentation, nutrient runoff, and nest site disturbance due to recreational uses of the rivers. Heightening concern is the discovery of a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis (chytrid) in all remaining wild populations of the Ozark hellbender. Researchers are finding chytrid to be fatal to an increasing number of amphibian species worldwide, and it has been proven to kill Ozark hellbenders in captivity. Researchers view chytrid as one of the most challenging threats to the survival of this subspecies.
In addition, biologists are finding that the average age of Ozark hellbender populations is increasing and few young are being found, which indicates that there are problems with reproduction or juvenile survival. This, and the multiple threats from disease and habitat loss, could lead to extinction of the Ozark hellbender within 20 years.
The Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi) if found in rivers and streams in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Photo by Jeff Briggler
“The low number of Ozark hellbenders, along with the increasing threats posed by the chytrid fungus and habitat loss, are cause for concern for this species,” said Tom Melius, the Service’s Midwest Regional Director. “Through our proposal to list the Ozark hellbender as endangered, we will take a close look at its status and threats, and gather as much information from the public as we can to help us determine whether it should be protected by the Endangered Species Act.”
The Service is also proposing to include the hellbender (including both the Ozark and eastern subspecies) under Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Collection and trade of hellbenders within the United States and internationally is of growing concern, particularly as hellbenders become rarer and, consequently, more valuable. CITES is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES listing of the hellbender would aid in curbing unauthorized international trade of hellbenders.
Hellbenders are salamanders with large tails and tiny eyes. Adult Ozark hellbenders may reach lengths up to 2 feet, and their flattened bodies enable them to move in the fast-flowing streams they inhabit. Hellbenders are habitat specialists that depend on constant levels of dissolved oxygen, temperature, and flow in their aquatic environment. Even minor alterations to stream habitat are likely detrimental to hellbender populations.
The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to kill, harm or otherwise “take” a listed species. The ESA also requires all federal agencies to ensure actions they authorize, fund, or undertake do not jeopardize the existence of listed species, and directs the Service to work with federal agencies and other partners to develop and carry out recovery efforts for those species. Listing also focuses attention on the needs of the species, encouraging conservation efforts by other agencies (federal, state and local), conservation groups, and other organizations and individuals.
The Service’s proposal to list the Ozark hellbender as an endangered species appears in the September 8, 2010, Federal Register. The proposal is also available on the Service’s Midwest Region website at www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered The Service is accepting comments on the proposal through November 8, 2010. Send comments to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov . Follow the instructions for submitting comments. Comments may also be mailed or hand-delivered to Public Comments Processing, Attn: RIN 1018- AV94; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.