For more than a year, researchers at Purdue University have been raising 18 young hellbender salamanders in a tightly-controlled laboratory setting. Having reached a size that increases their survival in the wild, these salamanders were released into the Blue River in early October.
Cassie Hauswald from The Nature Conservancy was on hand to watch the mud-colored salamanders crawl into the Blue. For Hauswald, this salamander release brought home the importance of the Conservancy’s work to improve water quality in the Blue River.
“The release of the Blue River’s poster child—the hellbender salamander—is exciting” said Hauswald, who works for the Conservancy’s Blue River office near Corydon. “We have worked hard to improve habitat and water quality along the Blue, not just for the hellbender, but for all its residents. To physically place new hellbenders in the river is quite a thrill.”
Hellbenders are large, aquatic salamanders known to many local residents by nicknames like “waterdog” or “devil dog.” Their defining feature is their size—a fully grown adult can reach two and a half feet long, making it the largest salamander in North America. Being a gentle giant, however, hellbenders are harmless to people.
The release event represents a combination of national and local efforts to “Help the Hellbender.” Project partners including Purdue University, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and The Nature Conservancy are working together to increase awareness of the animal and local water quality concerns, with a focus on action-oriented outreach information and events.
The group has launched a website—helpthehellbender.org—that features a video of the release, as well as information specific to anglers, homeowners, land managers, farmers, and educators in southern Indiana.
These groups of individuals can all help the creatures survive. Anglers, for example, should cut the line on any hellbender they catch while fishing, and report their encounter to the DNR or to the Purdue research team. Homeowners can install water conservation practices like rain barrels or rain gardens to help keep the Blue River clean since the hellbenders depend upon good water quality. Farmers can employ a number of different conservation practices that keep sediment, excess nutrients, and chemicals out of the Blue River. Teachers can include information about the animal in science lessons about river systems and local natural history.
The efforts of individuals will be matched by the researchers, local agencies, and conservation professionals working on wildlife and water quality issues in Blue River. The Nature Conservancy is currently partnering with a local water utility, health department and sewer district to send a septic maintenance reminder in water bills for water consumers to make the connection that not maintaining your septic system affects someone’s drinking water, including that of the hellbender.
The Conservancy also recently acquired 72 acres of Blue River forest to directly protect water quality and is working with the Mill Creek-Blue River Watershed Project in Washington County on solutions to water quality issues in the upper watershed of Blue River.
These conservation and educational efforts are an important part of a plan to keep the hellbender from becoming extinct. Though hellbenders like those in the Blue River are not yet federally endangered, individual populations have declined by an average of seventy-seven percent. They have disappeared entirely from as much as a third of their original range. In southern Indiana, hellbenders used to be found in several of the creeks and rivers that drain into the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. Now they appear to be limited to the Blue River area, and in ever-decreasing numbers.
Purdue University, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy hope the local community will rise to the challenge of protecting these special animals and the Blue River that supports them.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
The Nature Conservancy