Ozark Hellbender Listed as Endangered

BLOOMINGTON, Minnesota, October 14, 2011 (ENS) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated the Ozark hellbender as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Hellbenders are among the world’s largest salamanders. The Ozark hellbender inhabits the White River system in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

Adult Ozark hellbenders may reach lengths up to two 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 detrimental to hellbender populations.

“The Ozark hellbender faces extinction without the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act,” said Tom Melius, the Service’s Midwest Regional director. “Listing provides tools and an infrastructure within which partners can pool resources and expertise to help save this species.”

An Ozark hellbender, one of only 590 left in the wild (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Announcing the designation last week, the Service also said it has decided to list the Ozark and eastern hellbender in Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES. Appendix III species are listed after one member country has asked other CITES Parties for assistance in controlling trade in that species. In all member countries, trade in these species is permitted only with an export permit and a certificate of origin.

In combination, these listings will provide significant protection to hellbenders, both in the United States and internationally, the Service said.

Ozark hellbender populations have declined an estimated 75 percent since the 1980s, with only about 590 individuals remaining in the wild.

The Service says numbers have dropped because of degraded water quality, habitat loss resulting from impoundments, ore and gravel mining, sedimentation, and collection for the pet trade.

The Ozark hellbender is also at risk from a fungal disease, chytridiomycosis, and severe physical abnormalities such as lesions, digit and appendage loss, and skin sloughing, which most Ozark hellbenders exhibit.

Frogs and toads as well as salamanders are suffering from this fungal disease, which is contributing to a global decline in amphibian populations.

In addition, the average age of Ozark hellbender populations is increasing and few young are being found, indicating problems with reproduction or juvenile survival. This, and the multiple threats from disease and habitat degradation, could lead to extinction of the Ozark hellbender within 20 years.

The Service determined that designating critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act 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.”

Two subspecies of hellbenders are recognized, the Ozark hellbender and the eastern hellbender. The Ozark hellbender only occurs in Missouri and Arkansas, whereas the eastern hellbender range includes portions of 16 states: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to kill, harm or otherwise “take” a listed species. The law 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 focuses attention on the needs of the species, encouraging conservation efforts by federal, state and local agencies, and conservation groups.

The Service’s final rules to list the Ozark hellbender as an endangered species and to include hellbenders in Appendix III of CITES appear in the October 6, 2011, Federal Register.

The Ozark hellbender listing will take effect 30 days after publication of the final rule, while the listing of hellbenders in CITES Appendix III will take effect 180 days after publication of the final rule. This additional time is necessary so that the Service can submit required documentation to the CITES Secretariat, which will then notify all CITES Parties of this action taken by the United States.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.