In North Carolina, Eastern Hellbenders Are a Species of Concern, Threatened by the Vagaries of Climate Change – InsideClimate News

WATAUGA COUNTY, N.C.—Ben Dalton broke the glassy surface of the Watauga River, spit out his mouthpiece and gasped for breath. All morning, Dalton, a state wildlife biologist, and two other snorkelers had been scouring the river bed, trying to rescue as many eastern hellbenders as they could.
So far, they had not saved a one.
“They just hunker down and press themselves against the sides of the rock,” Dalton said, in a nasal voice through his snorkeling mask. He wielded a “tickler,” which resembled a long, yellow pipe cleaner. “I’m going to try to goose the hellbender and see if it will shoot out the front.”
Glistening in a sleek wetsuit, Dalton is thin, lean and agile, much like the hellbenders he was trying to rescue. In early July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with support from American Rivers and MountainTrue, would begin staging heavy equipment nearby, the first step in dismantling the Shull’s Mill Dam, southwest of Boone in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The dam, which once powered a timber mill, has fragmented and degraded the giant salamander’s sensitive habitat. 
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Dalton is accustomed to the mercurial moods of amphibians. His biology career has taken him to Missouri, where he studied the Ozark Zigzag salamander, to Puerto Rico, where he observed Coqui frogs, and now to the mountains of North Carolina, where he’s trying to outwit a hellbender.
“If hellbenders don’t want to come out,” Dalton said, “it’s really hard to get them out.”
Throughout their range in the eastern U.S., the number of hellbenders is plummeting. In some states, like Ohio and Indiana, they are listed as endangered. North Carolina has the most hellbenders of any state in their range, but even here, they are classified as a species of concern: vulnerable, and without interventions, en route to becoming threatened or endangered. So precarious is the species in North Carolina that it is illegal to take, possess, transport or sell hellbenders or attempt to do so.
“They’ve survived millions of years,” said Lori Williams, a biologist with the state Wildlife Resources Commission. “Something has changed now.”
Williams has devoted much of her career to salamanders, especially the hellbender. The Wildlife Society named her Biologist of the Year in 2020 for her conservation and monitoring of their habitats.
She’s seen how in western North Carolina, extreme weather, the result of climate change, is altering the hellbenders’ habitat. When it floods, the force of the water can wash them out of the river. In 2021, after the catastrophic Tropical Storm Fred, Williams said, “we found dead hellbenders near Asheville.”
As recently as last fall, 15 mountain counties experienced severe drought conditions during a stretch that ranked among the top five driest periods on record, according to the State Climate Office. When stream levels drop, the hellbenders’ eggs are exposed to predators. Even full-grown hellbenders can be plucked from the water by river otters and bald eagles.
Dams, like the one at Shull’s Mill, compound the effects of climate change on aquatic habitats. Without a free flow of fresh water, oxygen levels drop and river temperatures rise; both are detrimental to the hellbender, which needs cool, oxygenated water to survive. Sediment accumulates behind the dam, covering and suffocating critical food sources and breeding grounds.
But now, the dam will be demolished. 
“Some little ones will die,” Williams said, sounding resigned. “But it’s important to save the breeders.”
Williams had tucked her brown hair beneath a gray-and-white cap emblazoned with “NC Wildlife Resources Commission.” Wearing a black wetsuit, she, too, was prepared to join the search. She turned and asked the rescue team to prepare to return and dive that night, if necessary. That’s when the hellbenders, who are nocturnal, would come out to feed on crayfish, their preferred food. 
“I don’t want to leave any animal behind,” Williams said.
At midday, the scuba tanks arrived, which would allow the rescue team to remain underwater longer. With waterproof flashlights, the divers could seek out the hellbenders, which blend in with their surroundings: Rust-colored with black spots, stubby legs that end in padded pink toes and with a shovel-shaped tail, hellbenders appear prehistoric. 
“Hellbenders are beautiful,” Dalton said. “They’re perfectly adapted to their environment. But what’s really fascinating is that they can help tell us about the health of the streams.”
Hellbenders are an indicator species. If climate change alters the river levels and temperatures, if trees are cut along the banks, if sediment enters the water from urban runoff, the number of hellbenders will decline.
Dr. Mike Gangloff, a professor of freshwater conservation biology at Appalachian State University, has been monitoring the health and number of hellbenders in North Carolina for more than 15 years.
In the headwaters of the Watauga River, the hellbender density is the highest in the state, “like they were 500 years ago before we changed our rivers and the landscape.” 
But the worrisome trend, Gangloff said, is “we’re not seeing as many middle-sized animals.”
The proliferation of exurban luxury housing developments is degrading the water quality. These communities often have their own wastewater leachfields that discharge into the river, Gangloff said.
Private fishing clubs with state permits are stocking the river with large fish, Gangloff said, which can prey on the hellbender larvae. “When we relocate the hellbenders, we put them where there are fewer ginormous fish,” he said.
And when it’s time to mate, hellbenders have wanderlust, which dams thwart. “They need to travel,” Dalton said. “They need large, continuous spans of river to breed.”
The rescuers donned their scuba tanks and plunged into the river. They split off, some swimming toward a boulder and others heading for the dam.
The Shull’s Mill dam has been abandoned since the Great Flood of 1940, which drowned and buried areas of western North Carolina in water and mud. Over the past 84 years, the dam has eroded and in one spot has been breached. A keyhole in the concrete allows some water to gush through like a firehose, while behind it lie slicks of sediment, a tangle of rebar and chunks of tree trunks and concrete.
“The hellbenders can’t make it through the dam, even though it’s been breached,” said Andy Hill, Watauga riverkeeper and High Country regional director with MountainTrue. “What we’re seeing is isolated thriving populations, but they’re not thriving throughout the system in a continuous way.”
There are more than 28,351 dams in North Carolina, according to the Southeast Aquatic Resources Partnership. Most of them are privately owned, and many have been abandoned. “A lot of these structures are remnants of the historical past,” said Erin McCombs, Southeast conservation director with American Rivers. Sixty-three dams have been removed in North Carolina, gaining 5,593 miles of reconnected rivers and streams—equivalent to two trips across the continental United States.
Dam removal won’t eliminate the effects of climate change, but it can mitigate them. Water temperatures decrease, and when stream banks are replanted with native trees and plants, they’re better equipped to trap sediment when the inevitable flood does occur. 
Three years ago, the removal team dismantled the Ward Mill dam, also along Watauga. Unlike Shull’s Mill, the Ward structure was intact, and a tall, wide table of sand had amassed behind it. Now that segment of the river flows freely and its conditions are optimal for the relocated hellbenders.
“Rivers know how to be rivers,” McCombs said. “And when they are healthy, all life that depends on them benefits.”
The hellbender was cornered. But his removal required the rescue team to use pry bars to lift the boulder so Dalton could dive beneath it and retrieve him.
“Give me a foot of space,” Dalton told the rescue team. “Make sure you have a good hold. If you can’t hold that rock for 15 seconds or more, I won’t go.”
Dalton dove. The team lifted the rock. Other rescuers readied large nets.
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After what seemed like an interminable length of time, Dalton bolted from the water.
“I got him!” Dalton said, hoisting the hellbender as if it were a newborn baby.
Hellbenders feel cool and wet, similar to Jell-O, yet tough and sturdy, like a well-toned bicep. 
Dalton placed the hellbender in a mesh bag. Hannah Woodburn, a staff scientist at MountainTrue, gingerly removed him and placed him on a scale—about a pound in weight and a foot in length. A brief wave of a wand indicated he had never been tagged by biologists.
Meanwhile, Lori Williams of the state Wildlife Resources Commission counted his toes—he had all of them—and scanned his body for scars—he had none.
“He’s not yet mated,” Williams said. “This will be his first season to fight.”
Williams injected a tag into his tail. And Woodburn placed him in an aerated cooler full of water until he would be relocated 12 miles to a different segment of the Watauga that afternoon. Scientists temporarily place hellbenders in wooden crates to allow them to calm down and get their bearings. 
Near the dam, a diver yelled: “I got another one!”
It was a male, who had a bruised rear right foot and a missing toe on his back left.
And then another, and another. Over several days, the rescue team relocated eight hellbenders out of harm’s way. 
U.S. Fish & Wildlife has begun chipping away at the dam and should be finished by mid-July.
“This will serve as a climate change mitigation measure,” said Hill, the Watauga riverkeeper. “The river will meander once and again and find its own path. You’re allowing the river to flow free.”
If you see an eastern hellbender in the wild, they should be left alone and reported to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Send the location, a photo if possible and other details to Lori Williams, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Wildlife Commission, at [email protected].
Lisa Sorg is the North Carolina reporter for Inside Climate News. A journalist for 30 years, Sorg covers energy, climate environment and agriculture, as well as the social justice impacts of pollution and corporate malfeasance.
She has won dozens of awards for her news, public service and investigative reporting. In 2022, she received the Stokes Award from the National Press Foundation for her two-part story about the environmental damage from a former missile plant on a Black and Latinx neighborhood in Burlington. Sorg was previously an environmental investigative reporter at NC Newsline, a nonprofit media outlet based in Raleigh. She has also worked at alt-weeklies, dailies and magazines. Originally from rural Indiana, she lives in Durham, N.C.
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