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What Would You Do to Save the Third Largest Salamander in the World?

Eastern Hellbenders range through much of the Appalachian Mountains, from southern New York to Northern Georgia. In most states within their range, hellbenders are listed as rare, threatened, or endangered.

The eastern hellbender is the third largest salamander species in the world. It depends on clean, cool, swiftly moving waters to survive, and is an invaluable indicator of water quality. But the giant aquatic salamander’s population has suffered a 90 percent decline across its range since the 1970’s. The reason – soil erosion and the silt it adds to streams. The silt burys the large rock they need for reproduction, suffocates their eggs, fills in hiding places for their young, and kills the crayfish and other invertebrates they eat.

The same soil erosion threatening the Hellbender, also threatens vegetable grower Fred Thompson of Giles County, Virginia. When he realized he was losing his land due to unstable streambanks, he contacted his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for assistance.

The NRCS and the Conservation Management Institute of Virginia Tech (CMI) collaborated on a conservation plan for Thompson to implement natural channel restoration, streambank stabilization, habitat structures and tree and shrub planting to restore the channel and reduce erosion. CMI partnered with NRCS to design stream restoration and habitat improvement projects for agricultural producers, like Thompson, in southwestern Virginia.

Before (left) and after (right) photos of restored erosion and a lack of riparian vegetation that resulted in excessive soil clogging habitat. Photos by Conservation Management Institute.

“We are very pleased, and we’ve had so many compliments on the work that was done,” said Thompson. “It really made a difference on our property.”

These conservation systems helped Thompson keep more soil on the land and out of nearby waterways while maintaining productive lands and restoring aquatic habitat for the hellbender and many other wildlife species.

Partnering for Wildlife on Working Lands

What’s good for wildlife is also good for you and there are plenty of species that need your help to survive and thrive. That’s why the NRCS developed the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) program. The program provides agricultural producers technical and financial support, offered by NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), to implement conservation systems on their land, such as livestock fencing, streambank stabilization, natural channel restoration, and instream barrier removal.

To learn more about Working Lands for Wildlife’s win-win approach to conservation, contact your local USDA service center.

Thanks to Jocelyn Benjamin, USDA Public Affairs Specialist, for contributions to this story.

More stories about what you can do:

Grazing Around Streams – Three Examples of Trying to Do the Right Thing

Grazing Around Streams – More Ways To Do The Right Thing

This Rancher Takes Care of the Folks Downstream

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


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