04:48 PM

For Immediate Release

Good News for Hellbender Habitat: Grant Funds Conservation Work for Vulnerable Salamander

Defenders of Wildlife and our partners in the Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative, including the Conservation Management Institute at Virginia Tech, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and many others, have secured over $1.2 million to hire three partner biologists to implement conservation measures for the hellbender, the largest salamander in North America and one of the most threatened.  

The biologists will work with private landowners through the Working Lands for Wildlife program, which supports farmers using conservation practices on their lands that improves water quality and restores hellbender habitat. The funding is available through a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant.  

The hellbender, a large aquatic salamander native to several states throughout the Appalachian region, is struggling to survive habitat loss and degradation.  

Statement from Defenders of Wildlife Southeast Program Field Conservation Representative Kat Diersen: 

Hellbenders are fascinating creatures, ancient giants of Appalachian waterways. This is a great step on the path to recovery for the hellbender. Wildlife conservation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s a team effort. This grant will help the Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative work directly with farmers and landowners to protect the habitat this Appalachian icon needs to survive and thrive.” 


About hellbenders:

  • The Southeastern hellbender has inhabited the rivers and streams of the eastern United States for around 65 million years. The largest North American salamander, it can grow to be over two feet long and live for more than 30 years.

  • Because of its high sensitivity to pollution and siltation, it is also an important indicator species, with population declines providing early evidence of declining water quality.

  • Hellbenders were once widespread across the central and southern Appalachians, and were particularly abundant in middle and eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. Degradation and fragmentation of habitat has led to drastic range-wide population declines. Development, dams, mining, and poor land use practices have all contributed to the loss of hellbender habitat, but perhaps no impact has been more severe than that of agriculture.

  • Unsustainable farming practices, nutrient and pesticide runoff, loss of riparian habitat along stream banks and erosion from livestock entering streams contribute significantly to water pollution and siltation that degrades formerly viable habitat. The plight of the hellbender is now so dire that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the species under the Endangered Species Act.

About the grant and Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW):

  • Working Lands for Wildlife is an approach to imperiled species conservation on private agricultural lands developed by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Through WLFW, NRCS provides both financial and technical assistance to landowners who are willing to install conservation practices that benefit certain species, including the hellbender. Landowners who enroll will implement practices that protect and restore hellbender habitat, such as cattle exclusion fencing and forested riparian buffers. NRCS will provide up to 75 percent cost share for farmers to install those practices.

  • Through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant, partners in the Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative made commitments to support implementing WLFW for hellbenders in several different ways, including:

  • developing technological tools to help strategically target the most important habitat for restoration;

  • engaging in outreach in key agricultural communities to bring awareness about hellbenders and how habitat and water quality improvements can benefit both hellbenders and the farmers themselves; and

  • supporting ongoing monitoring to track water quality and habitat improvements over time.

  • In awarding the grant, NFWF has committed to providing funding to pay for partner biologists who can expand the reach of those investments. These partner biologists will reach out to landowners, conduct on-farm habitat evaluations and help walk interested landowners through the process of enrolling in WLFW.

  • Having these partner biologists on the ground will dramatically expand our reach, bringing SEHCI to more potential landowners and making it easier for them to participate.

About the Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative (SEHCI):

  • Defenders of Wildlife is working to help preserve and restore hellbender habitat on private lands by spearheading SEHCI, a long-term, multi-state collaborative partnership. Through SEHCI, we will bring together a large and diverse group of partners to invest in education, outreach, habitat restoration and monitoring on private lands throughout the Southeast.

  • The goal of SEHCI is to improve water quality and habitat by supporting landowners who restore riparian buffer zones, keep livestock away from streams, remove barriers to passage such as dams and culverts, and improve soil health on agricultural and other private lands.

  • Adopting conservation practices to improve water and soil quality can benefit landowners as well as hellbenders. For example, practices that improve the quality of grazing lands and access to quality drinking water benefit overall herd health. Protecting stream banks can increase the acreage available for crop planting, and prevent erosion and potential risk to cattle, farm buildings and even homes. SEHCI partners work to expend opportunities for these win-win outcomes for landowners and wildlife.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.