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For Release: Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Partnership Creates New Habitat for Species of Special Concern

Collaborative Efforts Focus on Habitat Restoration & Breeding of State's Largest Salamander

Reaching more than two feet in length, the Eastern Hellbender is one of the largest salamanders found in North America and is classified as a species of special concern by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). A collaborative partnership between DEC and the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to restore the amphibian's critical habitat throughout the Allegheny River Watershed has produced nearly six acres of additional rock cover habitat within hellbender inhabited streams. An ongoing monitoring study is examining hellbender use of this new and enhanced habitat.

One of the key components in restoring the hellbender population is to recreate its critical habitat. DEC research indicates that hellbenders use large flat stones for cover. In the past, road construction work adjacent to streams has eliminated the periodic, natural deposition of large stone. In an effort to create and enhance suitable breeding and nursery habitat, DOT has assisted DEC over the past two years in the purchase and placement of 33 tons (2,300 square feet) of large flat stones in 11 selected sections of the Allegheny River Watershed where hellbenders are known to exist.

"DEC and DOT's collaborative efforts have made significant progress toward the future recovery of this species in New York state," said DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. "Our field observations show hellbenders are using the newly placed rocks and benefiting from the enhanced habitat they produce."

"The DOT is committed to rebuilding and maintaining our transportation system to the benefit of all New Yorkers but we must do so in a sustainable manner, recognizing the need to protect endangered species as we go about our work," said DOT Commissioner McDonald. "We look forward to continued collaboration with the DEC on this and other equally important projects."

Due to their limited distribution in New York, the hellbenders' declining population and susceptibility to pollution and siltation, DEC classifies hellbenders as a state species of special concern and is taking actions to prevent their status from elevating to threatened or endangered. The creation of critical habitat supplements an ongoing head starting effort that is also a key component to hellbender restoration strategies in New York State. The head starting effort aims to improve hellbenders' breeding success and is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the State Wildlife Grants Program, which provides support to states for the restoration of species of greatest conservation need.

Since 2009, about 700 hellbender eggs have been collected from the Allegheny River Watershed and brought to the Buffalo Zoo, where the zoo's reptile and amphibian keepers have successfully hatched more than 600 of the eggs. The hellbenders will be reared at the zoo until the summer of 2013, when DEC will tag and release the juvenile hellbenders back in the Allegheny River Watershed. A portion of these reared hellbenders will be released into the newly created and enhanced critical habitat sites. The hellbender rearing lab is open for public viewing inside the Buffalo Zoo Reptile House. The head starting program was so successful that the Buffalo Zoo shared larval hellbenders with several other zoological facilities throughout the northeast, including the Bronx Zoo.

"Collaborative efforts are extremely important to successfully preserve the hellbender population in western New York," said Penny Felski, herpetological manager at the Buffalo Zoo. "We are extremely proud to work with the DOT and DEC to help protect hellbender habitat so that the species can survive in the wild."

The Eastern Hellbender was listed as a special concern species of New York State in 1983. It is classified as endangered in Maryland, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana and as threatened in Alabama. In New York State, the Eastern Hellbender is found in only the Allegheny and Susquehanna River Watersheds. Hellbenders can vary in color from grayish to olive brown and are occasionally entirely black. A pair of loose flaps of thick, wrinkled skin which serve a respiratory function, run laterally along either side of the animal. These salamanders are perfectly adapted to their swift flowing stream habitats with their flattened head and body, short stout legs, long rudder like tail and very small beady eyes.

DEC reminds anglers that while hellbenders are rare to see, they are not dangerous and they do not present any threat to fishing opportunities. If while fishing an angler happens to encounter or catch a hellbender, DEC advises that it should immediately be released back to the waters it was taken from. DEC also encourages anglers to report any sightings to the nearest DEC office.

More information about hellbenders can be found on DEC's website. Pictures of the Eastern Hellbender are available at ftp://ftp.dec.ny.gov/dpae/press/Hellbender/.

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