Even its staunchest defenders admit that the hellbender makes an unlikely focal point for wildlife conservation. The giant salamander, which thrives in Western North Carolina’s fast-flowing streams and rivers, lacks the majestic wingspan of the bald eagle, the elegant legs of the giraffe or the cuddly countenance of the red panda. In the words of Elise Bennett, a reptile and amphibian staff attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, the species bears a striking similarity to a “slimy sock puppet.”
Despite its lack of charisma, the hellbender plays a starring role in “Extinction Plan,” the latest report from the Washington-based Endangered Species Coalition. Conservationists have been attempting to list the species under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2010, but as Bennett explains, regulatory changes to the act proposed by the administration of President Donald Trump could hamper the path to protection for hellbenders and other at-risk wildlife.
“The ESA is the strongest weapon we have against the permanent extinction of species,” Bennett says. “These regulations are nothing more than a brazen attempt to defang the act at the behest of corporate and political interests.”
Xpress attempted to obtain comment from multiple personnel with the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is responsible for enforcing the ESA. All such requests were unsuccessful due to the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government.
Muddying the waters
For the hellbender, says Bennett, the most worrying of these changes is the removal of language that prevents the government from considering information beyond biology in ESA listings. Under current regulations, decisions on whether to protect species must be made “without reference to possible economic or other impacts.”
While the proposal cutting this phrase claims that ESA protections will continue to be decided “based solely on biological considerations,” it also notes that “referencing economic or other impacts may be informative to the public.” Bennett, however, argues that including economic information will serve no purpose beyond “injecting controversy” into the process.
“Why analyze a factor that you’re not allowed to actually consider?” she asks. “It provides an excuse for this administration to say, ‘We would love to protect the hellbender, but unfortunately, it’s just going to hurt all of these corporate interests, and we can’t do that.’”
The hellbender thrives in pristine watersheds with little erosion, which means the species is particularly sensitive to the disturbances of industries such as coal mining and timber harvesting. J.J. Apodaca, founder of Tangled Bank Conservation in Asheville and associate executive director of The Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy, says that sedimentation from intensive land use can prevent the salamanders from reproducing successfully.
“[Sedimentation] takes away those interstitial spaces that they depend on, those little spaces between the rocks,” Apodaca explains. “Just like trout, when there are eggs in those interstitial spaces, it settles on the eggs and suffocates them.”
In many hellbender habitats throughout the area, Apodaca says he’s already seen population age imbalances that may be due to sedimentation. Streams will often have one large adult male or female — “sort of dinosaurs sitting around,” as he describes them — but no sign of eggs or larvae.
“To put it in humanistic terms, it’s sort of like a small town that’s lost its economic base,” Apodaca says. “The people that are retired have the ability to hang out there and survive, but the younger generation that can’t find a job can’t.”
The hellbender could also suffer from a proposed update to the regulatory definition of the “foreseeable future,” says Bennett. She suggests that the new language, which does not explicitly mention climate change, may allow regulators to ignore inconvenient science when attempting to deny protections for vulnerable species.
Bennett points to the 2017 rejection of an ESA listing for the Florida Keys mole skink, which she sees as an example of this bias at play. Researchers had projected that the lizard, which lives only on a handful of islands off the Florida coast, could lose up to 50 percent of its habitat to a climate-associated increase in sea level by 2060.
“[Regulators] found that the sea level rise wasn’t reasonably foreseeable for a number of reasons, despite the fact that we have a lot of science that says otherwise,” Bennett says. “This regulation is really just carrying forward these bad analyses that are coming out of the agencies.”
Hellbenders have already faced an uphill climb to protection, according to biologist Thomas Floyd with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, who served on a federal expert committee during the salamander’s most recent species status assessment. A previous assessment during the administration of President Barack Obama, he says, found that the hellbender wasn’t at risk in a “significant portion of its range” because it was doing comparatively well in the Southern Appalachians. However, the species was declining over more than 80 percent of its territory, which stretches from southern New York to northern Georgia.
“It all seems like semantics, but it can mean a big difference for the conservation of the species,” Floyd says. “I don’t think a lot of biologists necessarily agreed with that interpretation.”
If the government eventually determines that the hellbender is threatened but not endangered, Bennett adds, regulatory changes will add another hurdle to its protection. Currently, all threatened species automatically receive the same protections as endangered species, but the new rules would compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop species-specific plans.
That work takes additional time and money, both of which Bennett says are already in short supply at the FWS. And she argues that idiosyncratic protection plans could give regulators more leeway to be pressured by industrial and economic concerns instead of focusing on the science.
“What’s really concerning about these regulatory rollbacks is they’re part of a larger strategy to chip away at the [ESA],’” Bennett says. “They’re making changes to hamstring it so then they can argue it doesn’t work. It’s not that the act doesn’t work; it’s that they’re not implementing it the way it should be implemented.”
Chance in hell
As the new regulations await final approval, biologists say they’re focusing on proactive management of existing hellbender populations. Apodaca, for example, worked with the Washington-based nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife to get the salamander added to Working Lands for Wildlife, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that pays landowners for the conservation of imperiled species, with plans to begin disbursing funds this year.
“Regardless of whether it’s listed or not, we can hopefully get thousands, if not millions, of acres protected that benefit the species and also benefit local landowners,” Apodaca says. “The idea of protecting things that are declining but still have populations that we can build on makes a lot of sense.”
And Floyd is beginning a study to better understand the lack of young hellbenders in seemingly suitable sites. He hopes to sample insects and other food sources across different hellbender habitats, comparing conditions and figuring out what makes the species thrive.
The official public comment period on the proposed regulations ended in September, but Bennett encourages citizens to continue sending letters of concern to the FWS and congressional representatives. If the changes do go through, she adds, the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations are prepared to challenge the administration in court.
There’s considerably more at stake, Bennett says, than the survival of slimy salamanders. “The larger issue we sometimes miss is that protecting species is part of protecting our planet,” she explains. “When we see species like the hellbender hanging in the balance, it’s really an advanced warning that someday it’s going to be us.”