Wildlife conservation benefits popular species. Hellbender Could Change That – NPR

Peter Petokas of the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College and Michelle Herman of The Wetland Trust with a young salamander they helped breed in captivity and released in 2018.

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Peter Petokas of the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College and Michelle Herman of The Wetland Trust with a young salamander they helped breed in captivity and released in 2018.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

BINGHAMTON, New York — The flight of a bald eagle is fascinating. A snarling grizzly is impressive. A swimming salamander? You may not be able to imagine that.

On a recent hot summer day, biologist Michelle Herman is carefully examining this type of rare giant salamander for invasive fungi in a tributary of the Susquehanna River. She is part of a small group of biologists, state wildlife technicians and volunteers supporting Hellbenders in this area, where their numbers have declined dramatically.

“They don’t have a lot of advocates, so I’m happy to be a Hellbender advocate,” says Herman, who works for The Wetland Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Some high-profile species, like the bald eagle, are conservation success stories. But thousands of less charismatic species compete for scarce resources in the United States, with up to a million threatened with extinction worldwide, according to The United Nations.

Amphibians, like Hellbenders, are declining for a number of reasons since habitat destruction from climate change. Hellbenders live under giant rocks in clean, fast-flowing streams, where they like to eat crayfish. Their presence is a sign of good water quality, Herman says.

Existing federal conservation funds only cover about 5 percent of what is needed to help the more than 12,000 “species most in need of conservation,” including the salty salamander, according to the Alliance for Fish and Wildlife of America.

Hellbenders live under giant rocks in the creek bed. Petokas and a college student use snorkel gear to try to find them.

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Hellbenders live under giant rocks in the creek bed. Petokas and a college student use snorkel gear to try to find them.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

Champions of the species here so far have cobbled together resources from the Bronx Zoo and elsewhere to breed them in captivity, tag them with microchips, and return them to the wild. But they have also tried a number of unorthodox tactics to raise the animal’s profile and attract conservation funding.

Peter Petokas, Research Associate at Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute, has created a crowdfunding page for work. His work helped inspire a group of high school students who lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to declare him the state official amphibian.

“They borrowed my Hellbender customwhich is really cool,” Petokas says. After two years of canvassing elected officials, the students were successful. But none of this led to more funding, he says.

Hellbenders have several nicknames related to their unusual appearance, including “lasagna lizard”, “snotty otter”, and “Allegheny alligator”.

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Hellbenders have several nicknames related to their unusual appearance, including “lasagna lizard”, “snotty otter”, and “Allegheny alligator”.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

Federal funding tends to go toward game species

Since the 1930s, the US has taxed hunting and licenses, as well as guns, ammunition and other equipment, to raise money for conservation. In the 1950s, that model was expanded to include fishing licenses and equipment with the Dingell–Johnson Act.

Mike Leahy, director of wildlife, game and fish policy for the National Wildlife Federation, says that as a result, money often goes to species that hunters and fishermen care about, such as deer and elk. .

“There’s been this gap in getting funding for species that aren’t hunted or fished,” he says.

But many species identified as in need of conservation have a less direct relationship with humans. Invertebrates such as molluscs and insects, as well as fish and bird species are threatened in large numbers, according to the US Department of the Interior.

Many conservationists talk about the loss of these species like flying a plane by slowly removing each screw, or a game of Jenga. Each one that disappears weakens entire ecosystems. But others prefer to think of conservation in positive terms, as an investment.

“I think the real value in preserving a really rare and unique species is having it there for the future, for everyone to enjoy,” Petokas says.

A Hellbender awaits his health check in a bowl of river water. The animals are fully aquatic and breathe through frilly folds that run down the sides of their bodies.

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A Hellbender awaits his health check in a bowl of river water. The animals are fully aquatic and breathe through frilly folds that run down the sides of their bodies.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

A bill to provide more funding has bipartisan support

Wildlife advocates hope this imbalance can change soon. A bill called the America’s Wildlife Recovery Act, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this summer, would dramatically increase the amount the federal government spends to protect America’s wildlife. create a $1.3 billion annual fund for conservation.

Led by Sens. Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), the Senate bill has more than 40 cosponsors, including 16 Republicans.

“By conserving wildlife habitat, we’ll also preserve outdoor recreational activities like hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing that support millions of additional jobs,” said Blunt, at the beginning of this year.

A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technician returns two geckos to the rocks in the creek where they live.

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A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technician returns two geckos to the rocks in the creek where they live.

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The money would go to state and tribal governments to decide how to spend it. The Act would also require 15% of the amount to support federally listed endangered species. But it is unclear whether the bill, which has yet to find a funding source to offset the cost of increased conservation spending, will come to a vote this year.

“If it happens, [it] it will really change the paradigm. It will be an absolute game changer,” says Sarina Jepsen, director of the endangered species program at the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that specializes in invertebrate conservation.

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