The eastern hellbender – the state’s largest amphibian – is struggling to survive within our watershed.
Peter Petokas, a research associate with the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College who has studied the hellbender for more than 15 years, recently shared in an York Daily Record story that 95 percent of the species’ habitat in the Susquehanna watershed “no longer exists.”
“There are some small pockets of them left,” he said. “But the hellbender no longer exists in the Upper Susquehanna or in the main stem of the river. There’s been some new information on the Tennessee Valley that concluded the hellbender was on its way out. The situation is much more dire in the Susquehanna watershed.”
While the hellbender may not be the most elegant or prettiest-looking creature within our aquatic ecosystem, it is one of the most valuable in terms of water quality indicators.
“Hellbenders are like the canary in the coal mine. This ancient species is now almost gone from much of Appalachian streams because they are incredibly sensitive to pollutants and the destruction of their habitats when smothered by sediment,” said Morgan Johnson, a staff attorney at Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Hellbenders are usually the first species to vanish when clean mountain streams are contaminated and disturbed.”
Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky agreed.
“Hellbenders thrive best in clean streams and creeks and provide an important litmus test for water-quality concerns, but we have seen a steep decline in their numbers within the middle Susquehanna watershed,” he said. “An endangered or threatened status for this creature, which has helped us better monitor our network of waterways, would go a long way to securing their future — and the future of the waters in which they live.”
This is why the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association joined forced with the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, the international Waterkeepers Alliance and regional Waterkeepers Chesapeake to file a notice of intent to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Services after a 2019 decision to disregard recommendations from Petokas and other hellbender experts and neglect to classify the hellbender as an endangered or threatened species.
“Our goal is to get this national agency to reconsider its decision and take more seriously the input by experts in this field who strongly urge some sort of protection for this species before it is too late,” said Zaktansky.
Help our organization as it provides a voice for a creature that has none by supporting our work via the Raise the Region fundraising campaign through 11:59 p.m. tonight (Thursday, March 11).
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.