Pennsylvania’s state amphibian may get another shot at federal protections after a recent court decision.
A federal judge in the Southern District of New York recently vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2019 decision that the eastern hellbender does not warrant a status as an endangered species.
Water quality advocates sued over the decision, calling it arbitrary, an abuse of discretion, and unlawful.
The mud-colored salamander — also known as a snot otter, mud devil, and Allegheny alligator — can grow to be two feet long, and can live up to 30 years. Its historic range spans 15 states.
But 40% of known populations have died out and more are shrinking, mainly because of pollution caused by development, logging, and flooding. The species is also threatened by climate change.
The judge ruled the federal agency improperly based its decision, in part, on current conservation efforts, which haven’t produced enough data to be proven effective.
“By protecting the eastern hellbender, not only are we protecting their species and their populations, but we’re also protecting — at the same time — water quality,” said Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis, who was part of the lawsuit.
Hellbenders can only survive in clean, swift-running, well-oxygenated streams and rivers.
“That’s why these species are so important, because they’re one of the few species we have that are just true, true indicators of how healthy a water system is,” Evgeniadis said.
If the hellbender is granted endangered status, he said, it would be more difficult for developers to build near their habitat.
He is optimistic the hellbender could get a new designation in about a year.
A spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment, saying it does not talk about active litigation.
Former Gov. Tom Wolf signed the hellbender’s status as official state amphibian into law in 2019. The legislation came from an effort of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council.
“The population of the hellbender began to decline sharply in the 1990s, leading to concern for their viability. And that’s alarming, because it means that our water quality has degraded over that period of time,” Wolf said at the time.
This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.