Hellbender Survey in the French Creek Watershed of Western New York (TWI Grant 005 Update)

By Tim Paine

This year TWI is excited to announce a beginning partnership with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI).  Roger Tory Peterson was the famed naturalist and artist who authored the landmark Field Guide to the Birds and spawned the Peterson Field Guide series.  Based in Mr. Peterson’s hometown of Jamestown, New York, their mission is to continue his work and foster understanding, appreciation and protection of the natural world. Much of their efforts are directed towards outdoor education and community involvement.  Last year RTPI hired Dr. Twan Leenders as their CEO.  Twan is the author of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Costa Rica Pocket Guide, former director at Connecticut Audubon and an experienced herpetologist.  When it comes to public education he is more than happy to include amphibians.

Earlier this year RPTI applied for a grant from TWI to fund a survey in the French Creek river drainage for the Eastern Hellbender, Cryptobranchus alleganiensis.  The largest salamander in North America, this secretive, fully aquatic species has suffered significant population declines in the past century, primarily due to alteration or degradation of its preferred habitat.  Information on the population status of this species is inconsistent throughout its range but recognition of a significant, range-wide declines has led to some level of protection in most of the states where it is found.  For example, New York lists the Eastern Hellbender as a Species of Special Concern, but Pennsylvania does not provide any legal protection.  On a national level, the Eastern Hellbender is considered ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN and is listed as ‘Endangered’ under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Eastern Hellbenders are found in clean, cold streams with rocky substrates from southern New York through northern Alabama and a small portion of Mississippi.  Along the northern edge of its range this species has been found in the Susquehanna river system of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland as well as in the Allegheny/Ohio River system in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois.  Eastern Hellbenders are also found in French Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania just south of the Pennsylvania/New York border.

French Creek represents one of the region’s most pristine watersheds and boasts a rich, irreplaceable natural heritage.  More freshwater fish and mussels are found in French Creek than in any other waterway in the northeastern United States: an astonishing 28 species of native mussels and 86 species of native fish thrive in a watershed considered to be one of the most ecologically intact in the entire Ohio River drainage.  Several of the watershed’s endemic mussels and fish are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The outcome of this project (which is part of a larger, region-wide bio-assessment program) will be a georeferenced map of suitable Eastern Hellbender habitat and increased knowledge of its occurrence in the New York section of the French Creek watershed.  Information derived from this project will be shared with appropriate agencies and stakeholder to provide better protection for this species, as well as to produce education and outreach materials for stakeholders in the French Creek watershed.

A few weeks ago TWI board members, and photographers, Mike Ready and Tim Paine, went to New York to begin documentation of the project and help spread the word about the plight of North America’s largest salamander.  Thankfully Appalachia is home to more than hellbenders.  The region hosts some of the highest salamander diversity in the world and protection of the watersheds will help protect the habitat and their faunal diversity.  Our first stop was a creek in the far northwestern corner of Pennsylvania where we located and photographed several hellbenders in the beautiful Allegheny river drainage system.  The next day we worked in the French Creek system as a precursor to next spring’s full survey efforts. Winter comes fast and cold in this part of the country and that really dictates when the most productive work can occur.  RTPI is also continuing with some other partnership efforts that will hopefully ensure even greater success with this project once it takes off.   Although our preliminary efforts did not yield any hellbenders in French Creek, conditions were positive with the observation of a mudpuppy, Necturus maculosus, and larvae. This is another large fully aquatic salamander with a wide eastern US distribution and stable population trending.

In partnering with RTPI, we at Tree Walkers International hope that working with this charismatic species will help increase awareness of this important animal as well as afford habitat protection for a number of other species beyond the amphibian realm.  Additionally, our efforts will go a long way towards public awareness and education and instill a sense of stewardship among the local residents.  Stay tuned for more on this project, some of our finds, and why we feel this effort is both important and positive.

Note from the Director: the author’s costs associated with this trip were covered by the author in order to ensure that the maximum number of dollars available went toward the project and conservation of the species involved.  All images and expenses incurred were a donation to/investment in conservation.

[Click an image to view in slideshow mode with captions.]

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