Column: Hellbender ruling a needed step toward better protections, but there is still much to be done
Riverkeeper note: The following is a column by Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky in response to the recent federal court ruling overturning the 2019 US Fish and Wildlife Service decision to deny the eastern hellbender protection under the Endangered Species Act. You can read the general press release here. You can read a local reaction story to the ruling here. Follow all our hellbender coverage and other elements here.
Sometimes, revisiting a little bit of history can provide quite a bit of context.
For example, in 2018, our corner of the state was busy celebrating the Loyalsock Creek as Pennsylvania River of the Year, which included promoting the mysterious, awkward and widely misunderstood eastern hellbender, still a resident in certain deep pools of the Loyalsock at that time.
In 2019, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined the eastern hellbender, nationwide, was not in need of any protections under the Endangered Species Act despite feedback to the contrary by hellbender experts the FWS brought in for advice on the matter. Among them was Dr. Peter Petokas, of Williamsport, who studied hellbenders throughout the Susquehanna River basin, including Loyalsock Creek.
Undeterred, Petokas partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a variety of students in championing the hellbenders' plight through the state governmental ladder with the help of Senator Gene Yaw, leading a few months later to Senate Bill 9 being signed into law by then-Governor Tom Wolf naming the hellbender as our state amphibian.
Again, that was 2019. The Loyalsock Creek was still in its River of the Year honeymoon, the FWS determined hellbenders had nothing to worry about in terms of long-term existence and Pennsylvania was celebrating them as state celebrities.
Except just three short years later, on Sept. 5, 2022, a coffer dam on the Loyalsock Creek washed out during a flood event, scattering a sediment plume that coated miles of the waterway with a thick layer of debris.
The incident was later included as one of multiple Clean Streams Law violations handed down by the regional Department of Environmental Protection to Pennsylvania General Energy at a natural gas pipeline construction site along the creek.
So, there was a bit of poetic justice earlier this week in the timing of United States District Judge Lewis J. Liman's 53-page summary judgement ruling of overturning the FWS' 2019 decision to deny the eastern hellbender protection under the Endangered Species Act.
It is signed September 5, 2023 – a year to the day of the Loyalsock Creek coffer dam washout.
The nation's largest salamander, with a length of upwards of 30 inches, the eastern hellbender, as a species, dates back to prehistoric times and can survive in the right conditions in the wild for 30 or more years.
“They prefer fairly large streams with clean water that have a stable food chain and an abundance of crayfish. They require waterways with large rocks – like rocks the size of cars – and those rocks must be kept clean," said Petokas. "Fine sediment in the waterway can bury those rocks. Habitat is critical for this creature, and if it is present, it is an indicator of clean water conditions.”
In nearly two decades of studying the hellbender, Petokas has seen one major population
within the greater watershed disappear with really no understanding of what happened and another wiped out by a sodium hydroxide spill in a 2006 rail car spill. On Loyalsock Creek last fall, he studied the impacts of sediment plumes like the one related to the coffer dam situation.
"We're seeing an association with these water withdrawal sites and pipeline crossings as we're seeing a huge amount of sediment that's being discharged into the creek. And it's basically filling in the little few habitats that still remain in the creek," Petokas said in one Sept. 22 story. "The habitat now is so darn limiting for this animal. Anything you do is only going to do harm.”
Petokas has estimated that 95 percent of the species’ habitat in the Susquehanna watershed no longer exists.
Which is why the recent ruling is such an important step in the right direction for this species.
"It is functionally extinct in many areas and likely to become endangered in the near future without intervention. The Susquehanna River basin represents a significant portion of the overall historic range of the eastern hellbender and its extinction would represent a significant loss of the species from its entire North American range," Petokas said. "Projections of when the species will become extinct in any given watershed are almost impossible to predict as the losses occur without prior indication of decline and in unanticipated locations, and there is no evidence that decimated populations are in recovery.
"Elevating the eastern hellbender to threatened or endangered status would enable conservation organizations and regulatory agencies the incentive to undertake intervention to stave off population declines and to restore historic populations to the Susquehanna River basin."
The hellbender was represented in this case by five groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity and including the Waterkeeper Alliance, Waterkeeper Chesapeake, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association and our nonprofit.
"This is a big win for the hellbender," said Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association President Marissa Crames. "I'm very grateful to be a part of an organization which helps to protect such a unique and wonderful species."
As much is known about hellbenders, there is quite a bit more to learn.
"Like what habitats might be critical beyond flagstone refuges and deep pools, or how far they naturally move and migrate within a watershed, or what effects stocking efforts have on wild animals in a stream," said Matt Wilson, of Susquehanna University's Freshwater Research Instititute. "Hopefully this change provides the chance to learn more about the species and improve conservation efforts."
With the ruling, the ball is in the court of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to take the next step, according to Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Elise Bennett.
"The agency now needs to reopen its status assessment and re-evaluate the species using the best science available, and that includes using a more realistic view of current conservation measures," she said. "Aside from previously not knowing information such as survival rates in nesting boxes, and survival of released hellbenders into future generations, none of that addressed issues like how to handle the constant threats of things like sedimentation."
Which, according to Barb Jarmoska, who lives along the Loyalsock Creek and was the whistleblower behind last fall's sediment plume issues, there have been additional violations in the waterway since the Sept. 5, 2022, coffer dam issue.
"They didn’t take sand bags out of the water full of sand. I saw them dump the sand into the creek. Dr. Petokas told me that's even more harmful because it can stay wedged into the cracks that are in the hellbenders' home," she said. "There have been a total of eight clean stream violations and it comes across as a practice of doing what they want and asking forgiveness instead of permission. This isn't just going away on its own."
If that isn't enough, sedimentation is just one of many ingredients in what has become a cocktail of contaminants in our greater watershed.
Acid mine drainage – a remnant of the region's coal industry, is the leading cause of stream impairment in Pennsylvania. Nutrient runoff, pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors, microplastics, heavy metals, salinity from excessive winter road salting, an increasing focus on PFAS and a wide number of other contaminants make our waterways that much more unstable for a creature that absorbs most everything it comes in contact to directly through its wrinkled skin.
"Ultimately, when factoring in all the data and available science, we all believe it should lead to a listing for the hellbender," said Bennett. "In the meantime, it is an opportunity for biologists to provide new information. This should be a call to action for people who care about this species and have scientific knowledge to come forward and do your part to help do what's best for the species."
"It made no sense to us when we received the news indicating the hellbender’s status would not be protected in 2019. This poor creature already suffers from so many injustices. Their numbers are dwindling, and they need our help to survive," said former Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Board President Kathy Snavely. "Bestowing protective stature is warranted. If the hellbender can’t survive in the waters of the Susquehanna and her tributaries, it won’t be long until we can’t either."
You can see the growing library of hellbender-related stories and other elements as well as continue to follow future updates on the status of the hellbender's quest for better protections at www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/hellbenders1.html
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.