JEFFERSON CITY - Ever heard of a hellbender? No, it's not your average teen-ager or the co-worker who drives you crazy. It's a state endangered salamander that the Missouri departments of Transportation and Conservation are working to protect.
MoDOT learned of a large population of this funny-looking creature during the recent design phase of a bridge replacement project. The project site is one of the few places in the state where the hellbender is found.
The hellbender is a large salamander that needs fresh flowing uncontaminated water, a clean environment, and a little bit of understanding. One of the largest salamanders in the world, it is peaceful, non-venomous, and eats crayfish and the occasional minnow. Their population is declining because of habitat loss from silt caused by poorly managed land use and development. Because the salamanders are endangered in Missouri, MoDOT's project leaders had a difficult decision ahead of them.
"With some animals and plants, the task of relocating them before starting a project is easy," said Senior Environmental Specialist Alan Leary. "Since this animal is so specific to the habitat it must live in, we couldn't just pick it up and move it somewhere else. We had to carefully plan how it was going to be done."
Working together, MoDOT and MDC put together a team of divers and biologists to safely move and house the hellbender salamanders in a fish hatchery until the bridge project is complete.
"We have a responsibility to protect endangered species and the environment while delivering transportation projects on time and within budget," MoDOT Director Pete Rahn said. "Sometimes that balancing act can get tricky."
"In most of the 16 states where they are found, hellbenders are listed as rare, threatened or endangered," Jeff Briggler, MDC herpetologist, said. "Due to obvious population declines of the Ozark and eastern hellbenders, the Missouri Department of Conservation has listed both of the subspecies of hellbenders as endangered in Missouri."
That is why great strides are being taken to keep this population healthy in Missouri. When the project is finished, large, flat rocks will be placed in the river to recreate a suitable habitat and improve conditions for the returning hellbenders, as well as for other aquatic life. The animals will then be closely monitored to ensure these amphibians have a healthy chance of survival. Because no other organization has tried this before, the project can also be used as a national model. Editor's note:
High-resolution photos of the eastern hellbender courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation can be found at http://www.modot.org/newsroom