The eastern hellbender, a giant aquatic salamander was once found in rivers throughout southern Indiana. There was a time when these two-foot long amphibians roamed nearly all of the Ohio River tributaries. It is now believed that fewer than 300 remain in the entire state, all in Blue River. Indiana’s hellbenders, like those in other regions, are disappearing at a startling rate; it has been estimated that the Blue River population will be extirpated within 25 years without significant intervention.
Purdue University is working with partners at The Nature Conservancy and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to conserve this special creature while there’s still time. We have adopted a threefold approach to conservation through outreach to local residents, land protection, and cutting-edge lab research on captive-rearing of hellbenders.
This comprehensive strategy was developed in response to the wide variety of threats to hellbender survival. Hellbenders are especially sensitive to water quality degradation and habitat loss, environmental concerns that affect nearly all aquatic organisms. But unlike many other imperiled species, hellbenders also experience direct interactions with people. Anglers occasionally catch the salamanders by accident. A small number of individuals view them as pests that need to be removed. It’s even rumored that hellbenders were served at a Harrison County fish fry in the 1970s.
Given these concerns, effective management of Indiana’s hellbenders will require changes in the way that people interact with them in the Blue River. Polluted water is a distributed problem that can be partially attributed to every person living or managing land in the watershed. It will take individuals changing how they care for their lawns, their septic systems and their farm fields for water quality to improve. Likewise, anglers fishing in the river need to know that hellbenders should be immediately returned to the river if accidentally caught, and that cutting the line (rather than removing the hook) is generally the safest way to release them.
Purdue is promoting specific hellbender-friendly behaviors in a number of ways. Many of these projects are outlined at Help the Hellbender, a website and Facebook page that contains information for how anglers, homeowners, farmers, and teachers can all lend a hand to help hellbenders. In addition to the website, fish measuring stickers and bobbers with the “cut the line” message are being distributed to local anglers. We have also developed an interpretive display with information about hellbender conservation that will be rotated throughout Harrison, Crawford, and Washington Counties.
The short-term impact of these efforts will be measured using surveys of watershed residents, landowners, and recreational users. Our initial study indicated that fewer than half of Blue River area residents had even heard of the hellbender. On the bright side, fewer than five percent of respondents indicated that they would intentionally hurt or kill the animal. We will conduct another survey in fall 2013 to see how these responses have changed as a result of the outreach work.
Members of The Nature Conservancy can help the hellbenders by donating to TNC, installing a rain barrel, or using a filter strip on your farm. Visit the Help the Hellbender booth at Harrison County’s Summerfest or your county fair, which will feature Herbie the Hellbender, a human-sized hellbender mascot and signs for your yard that show your support for the hellbender.