Hellbender survives in a tough environment

Jan 7, 2014

The Eastern Hellbender is a giant salamander that has been around for millions of years. 

An Eastern Hellbender crawls along the bottom of the Big Piney River on Ft. Leonard Wood in Pulaski County.
An Eastern Hellbender crawls along the bottom of the Big Piney River on Ft. Leonard Wood in Pulaski County.
Credit Kenton Lohraff

The 12-to-18 inch long creature looks like a flattened lizard.  You might think that with a name like Eastern Hellbender it would be tough enough to continue crawling along the bottom of fast running streams in the Missouri Ozarks for a long time.  But, as if its name weren't enough to contend with, the hellbender also battles poor water quality, habitat loss and disease.  It's estimated there are only about 800 of 'em left in the state.  So it's not too surprising it has been a state endangered species for ten years.  That means it's not on the federal endangered species list but could become extinct in Missouri in less than 20 years.  So, the worst place for the Eastern Hellbender to try and survive in the state would be on a military base, right?

On any given day at Ft. Leonard Wood in Pulaski County thousands of rounds of ammunition are fired during target practice.  It is just one of the many activities here involving thousands of recruits that has a big impact on the environment.  17 civilian employees of the U.S. Army work on base , doing among other things, making sure federal environmental laws are followed.  But the military mission - training troops - comes first.  No one knows that better than Natural Resource Management Specialist Thomas Glueck.  "They shoot tracer ammunition and other pyrotechnics that start fires," said Glueck.  "So we have to manage those pieces of real estate where they do that type of thing in order to contain fires."

And there is a lot of real estate on base, 62,000 acres of it.  But nearly two-thirds of the sprawling base is covered in deep woods.  What is most surprising about being on base is that once you get away from the firing ranges and such, you are quickly enveloped by oak and hickory forest.  And 10 miles of the Big Piney River runs right through the middle of it. 

Many civilians who do float trips on the Big Piney never even know they are on a military base.  Or that the Big Piney is home to the Eastern Hellbender.  "Places like that with swift flowing water  means there is low sediment.  Another feature they prefer is large rocks.  So, swift flow, large rocks, that's good hellbender habitat," said Kenton Lauroff who is a wildlife biologist and civilian employee of the U.S. Army.  He doesn't think there are more than 80 fully grown hellbenders on base.  "Which is remarkable when you look at the historical records where there were hundreds of individuals at any given spot."

Lauroff said the base has made efforts to improve hellbender habitat, most importantly, trying to keep runoff to a minimum.  But he said they have no control over runoff that gets into the river outside the base borders. 

He also said they have taken other steps to increase hellbender numbers.  It began six years ago when they took about 200 hellbender eggs from the Big Piney River.  They were then hatched, raised and grown in captivity before being released into the Big Piney last year.  "All the individuals are tagged with a small microchip.  Not all of 'em made it but a vast majority of 'em did," Lauroff said. 

But Lauroff knows the things that decimated the native hellbender population over the years can also kill the newly introduced benders.  Even so Thomas Glueck said the critters, hellbender or otherwise, are better off...on base.  "After you go outside the boundary, that habitat is gone because we as humans have decided we want other things."

As Kenton Lauroff was walking alongside the hellbender habitat he stopped for a moment and said to me, "Fantastic sound isn't it, that running river?"  I replied, "Right in the middle of a big military base."  Lauroff responded, "Right in the middle of it."  And for the hellbender, maybe the best place of all.