Eastern Hellbender: In Need of Understanding & Protection

Photo by Michael Kinney, 2017 in the Loyalsock Creek, a tributary of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.

The hellbender is an ancient species of giant salamander which is native to the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, among other clear, fast-flowing mountain streams in 15 southeastern, midwestern and northeastern states. They play an important role in the ecosystem, both as predator and prey. If you’re lucky you can spot this creature in your local waterways by looking out for a large, dark gray or brown amphibian with spots and a paddle-shaped tale.

Unfortunately, hellbender populations in our watershed are becoming more and more threatened due to pollution and poor water conditions.

Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky has great resources on his website on the hellbender. Here is a video that shows a juvenile hellbender release in late August in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River basin. Releasing juvenile hellbenders into the watershed is one way that activists are working to restore populations.

Photo by John Zaktanksy, August 2021, juvenile hellbender

Hellbenders are important because they are what is known as an indicator species. This means that their presence in a waterway indicates good water quality. This is because hellbenders require cool, clean water without harmful contaminants as well as a stable food chain that can provide them with lots of crayfish.

Nearly 80% of hellbender populations have already been lost or are in decline due to dams and other impoundments, industrial and agricultural water pollution, deforestation, oil and gas development including enhanced recovery techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, residential development, and mining. While acknowledging that those threats will likely intensify, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in April 2019 nonetheless found that the hellbender’s protection under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted. In July 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity, Waterkeeper Alliance, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers Chesapeake filed a lawsuit to reverse this decision.