What's Hurting Our Hellbenders?

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010


years. Hellbenders may live 55 years in captivity, but in the wild their maximum life expectancy is 30 to 35 years.

Mystery of the Deep

Amulti-agency working group is studying hellbenders to unravel the mystery of their decline. The effort has many components, including captive breeding, survey and monitoring, research and watershed protection.

The St. Louis Zoo and the Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery in Arkansas are taking the lead on captive breeding. While young hellbenders produced in captivity may one day be released to the wild, the main purpose of this effort is to preserve genetic stock in case hellbenders are so depleted from Missouri waters that they cannot recover without assistance.

The eastern hellbender is listed as rare in almost every state within its range. It is being considered for inclusion on the federal list of endangered species. The Ozark hellbender lives only in Missouri and Arkansas. It is already a candidate for federal endangered status. Missouri is the only state with populations of both eastern and Ozark hellbenders. Both subspecies were added to the state endangered list in April 2003.

On any given day during the spring, summer or fall, members of the working group may be seen snorkeling the clear waters of Missouri streams in search of hellbenders. As part of their monitoring and surveying efforts, team members catch, weigh, count and tag hellbenders.

From their efforts, the researchers have discovered a disturbing fact. Not only are there fewer hellbenders overall, but there are proportionally fewer young hellbenders than there were 20 years ago.

Anything that damages hellbender habitat can potentially affect their populations. This includes dams, gravel mining, stream siltation, poor water quality, contaminents in run-off, disease and other factors.

Humans also pose certain threats. People take hellbenders from the wild legally, illegally and accidentally. Scientific collecting was permitted in the past, and many hellbenders were taken for that purpose. They are also illegally taken for the pet trade, and by giggers and anglers.

Gigging hellbenders is against the law. If you see someone gigging hellbenders, report them immediately to your local conservation agent or call Operation Game Thief at (800) 392-1111. You can report violations anonymously, and you may reap a financial reward for cases that are successfully prosecuted.

One problem with diagnosing the plight of hellbenders is that their populations are declining even in streams with relatively stable habitat, such as the Current

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