The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

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Hellbender hiding among rocks of a Smoky Mountains headwater stream, TennesseeA hellbender blends in perfectly against the rocks of a headwater stream.  Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press

Hellbenders get help in face of new challenges, increasing threats

Snot otter. Mud devil. Lasagna lizard. Allegheny alligator. For a creature with so many colorful nicknames, the hellbender is unfamiliar to many people, including millions of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Julianne Geleynse wants to change that. The resource education ranger is tasked with teaching the public about the natural wonders the park protects within its borders in hopes of mitigating damage to natural resources caused by the millions of visitors, young and old, who enter the park each year.

With a visitor-to-ranger ratio of around 170,000 to 1, communicating with visitors is an ongoing challenge that requires unique solutions. Feeding wildlife and littering are perennial problems, but sometimes new issues emerge. Such was the case in 2017 – and again in 2020.

In 2017, researchers in the park were alarmed to find that hellbender numbers in traditionally healthy populations had dropped. An entire generation of subadult hellbenders seemed to be missing. The most glaring sign of the problem was the presence of dead hellbenders where visitors had moved and stacked rocks in park streams. Moving rocks to create pools, dams and artfully stacked cairns may seem harmless enough when one person partakes. But when hundreds of visitors concentrate in a few miles of stream every day for months on end, the destructive impact is significant. Viral photos of especially impressive cairns can spread on social media and inspire an army of imitators.

Why does moving rocks harm hellbenders? These giant salamanders spend most of their lives wedged beneath stones on the stream bottom. They live, hunt and breed beneath these rocks. In late summer, when temperatures still swelter and visitors indulge in their last dips of the season in park waterways, hellbenders are especially vulnerable as they begin to deposit fragile strings of eggs beneath select slabs. Simply lifting such a rock nest can cause the eggs to be swept downstream and the entire brood lost. As the researchers observed in 2017, moving and stacking stones can even directly crush the bodies of adult hellbenders.

Getting the message to the masses

Geleynse responded to the researchers’ dire observations with a new education plan and the “Don’t Move Rocks” campaign was born as a focused extension of “Leave No Trace” principles.

Messaging was composed, artwork commissioned and signs printed to be placed at sensitive waterways in areas of high visitor use. Alongside the eastern hellbender, the Citico darter and the Smoky madtom were selected as messaging mascots — they too are imperiled by recreational rock-stacking amid a host of other threats.

2020 brought another blow to the park’s hellbenders. Widespread shutdowns drove millions of Americans to seek recreation and refuge in the outdoors. The Smokies, like many other national parks, saw a sudden influx of first-time visitors. This was a bittersweet development for park advocates like Geleynse. New, curious eyes and minds exploring the splendor of the park is undeniably a positive thing. But inexperienced visitors are often ignorant of the threats they pose to the fragile landscape, and Geleynse noticed changes in the park’s high-use areas. “In 2019, we seemed to observe fewer rock cairns and dams. This year (2020), it was awful. They were everywhere.”

Geleynse stressed that ignorance, not malevolence, is behind this destructive behavior. “‘Leave no-trace’ education is really the huge component for these new visitors who don’t know what ‘leave no trace’ means.”

A reduction in park education programs and volunteer attendance, both necessary precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic, meant that the waves of visitors were met with a shortage of resources that would normally be there to educate them.

There is hope for the park’s hellbenders, though. Geleynse has worked to ensure that more information is made available to visitors when and where it is most needed.

2021 is on track to see 200 new educational signs produced and eventually placed at high-traffic areas in the park.

Hellbenders are only one of the thousands of organisms that will directly benefit from these efforts. “One of the things we’ve added to our messaging is to not only leave no trace, but to leave it better. If we all do our part, we can enjoy this beautiful park for years to come,” Geleynse said.

Wonders await in our waterways

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA snorkeler observes a stranded hellbender egg mass in a river near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mass was likely dislodged after other visitors moved rocks upstream; such eggs are quickly eaten by predators.  Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press

When he’s not working on a project for Zoo Knoxville, Phil Colclough can often be found navigating whitewater on a local river. As director of Animals, Conservation and Education at the zoo, Colclough is passionate about helping people understand and appreciate the creatures that share our world. That’s why, when he takes a group of friends or family out on the water, he encourages his guests to don a mask and snorkel to get up close and personal with the stream.

“People have no idea what’s beneath the surface of our rivers,” Colclough said. “There are just as many really beautiful, weird, intriguing creatures as you’d find in a coral reef.”

Colclough knows the rush one can get from exploring this underwater world because he experiences it every chance he gets. “Once people get an idea of that, they get really excited about it. It’s contagious.”

Zoo Knoxville is preparing to launch the new Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Campus — or, appropriately, the “ARC” — and Colclough is thrilled that a hellbender will be among the animals on display at the new facility. This means countless visitors will get to look a living hellbender right in its beady eyes. For many, zoos and aquariums may be the only opportunity to see aquatic species like the hellbender up close. But for those of us willing to take the plunge, Colclough encourages responsible exploration. “I want people to get out and see some of these places. Put on a snorkel this summer. Love them, enjoy them, spend time in them.”

Private lands: The newest frontier for hellbender conservation

Public spaces like Great Smoky Mountains National Park are invaluable strongholds for sensitive species like the hellbender. Watersheds permanently protected from future commercial and residential development are a bulwark against extinction and preserve healthy populations amid staggering, continentwide declines. The national parks and national forests were conceived in part for this purpose, and at least for hellbenders, public lands seem to be doing an adequate job of protection. But what about the vast, privately owned majority of the eastern United States? Tennessee’s private land holdings cover roughly 93 percent of the state’s area. What can be done to help hellbenders whose rivers run through or border these lands?

Biologist Jeronimo Silva is trying to answer that question.

“Hellbender work for the last 30 years has been focused on public lands;” Silva said. “Very little work has been done on private lands. You really start to see populations disappear when you get into watersheds that are more developed. Where things are right now, many populations are going to disappear if we don’t do anything.”

The Southeastern Hellbender Conservation Initiative (SEHCI) was formed in 2017. One aim of the organization is to connect landowners in high-priority watersheds with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture.

“A group of folks saw the opportunity with the NRCS as a ready-made organization to work with private landowners to implement best management practices on private property in identified priority-conservation watersheds,” Silva said,

Silva works with SEHCI as a private-lands biologist in Tennessee. He works with landowners, typically farmers, to help them understand how their land-use practices affect the streams that border their fields and pastures. Through the NRCS, landowners can receive assistance – financial and otherwise – in shaping their land and their activities to prevent degradation of aquatic habitats.

In some cases, this is easy; for example, cattle farmers can lose acres of pasture over time when riverbanks erode and collapse into channels. Maintaining a forested strip of land along the bank will prevent this erosion, helping farmers keep their acreage while keeping the stream free of excess sediment and runoff, both major dangers to hellbenders and other species. Even in these cases, however, skeptical landowners may need some convincing.

A big component of success is what Silva calls a cultural change — getting landowners to acknowledge there are best-management practices for land use that can optimize agricultural production while simultaneously promoting wildlife conservation. There is a prevailing idea that the two can’t coincide; SEHCI aims to help landowners understand this is possible. Ultimately, the initiative is successful when participants can find a common goal that benefits landowners and hellbenders alike.

Sowing stewardship through science

Some landowners are reluctant to invite a federal agency to help manage their property, especially when the proposed benefits are not immediately apparent. In these challenging cases, Silva emphasizes the importance of acknowledging ownership. Treating private landowners as the true stewards of their land, and convincing them that their natural resources are something to be proud of and deserving of protection, is a critical step in recruiting them to be a part of the team. As with the bald eagle, many conservation advocates portray the hellbender as an American icon and a cherished piece of our shared natural heritage. Convincing landowners to share this perspective can open the door to new, constructive partnerships between the public and private sectors, to the benefit of all.

Forging a link between public and private interests is only part of SECHI’s lofty goal. Another piece of the puzzle is reconciling academic science with boots-on-the-ground management practices. Silva is especially energized about this opportunity.

“A lot of the decisions made in management agencies are historically not based on best science. We really want to bridge the gap between the management and science sides, applying the latest science to management, developing technical notes for engineers, and organizing training events for the entire state of Tennessee to look at water quality in a more biodiversity-inclusive way.”

This also allows for adaptive management as new science is published and our understanding grows.

Ultimately, the fight to save hellbenders is being fought on many fronts, and while the threats they face persist, their army of advocates is growing. The drive to save these iconic creatures continues to break down historic barriers and foster partnerships across our communities at the local, state and federal levels. Education is at the core of this drive, as is the understanding that hellbenders’ fate is inextricably tied to our own.

“Everything is connected, and hellbenders are our canaries in the coal mine. The rivers and streams that you see on your property are the veins of the landscape. Anything you put in the landscape will spread throughout this ‘bloodstream,’” Silva said.

Hellbenders’ unique status as an indicator species means that whatever happens to them likely foreshadows downstream effects on ourselves. As long as there are folks working to spread the word and share the science, there is hope for both hellbenders and the ecosystems we share.

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