Complaint Claims U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wrongfully Determined the Hellbender Is Not Threatened

Environmental groups alleged in a complaint filed on Thursday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should have designated the eastern hellbender as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. The large, slimy, harmless salamander reportedly has multiple nicknames: “water dog, mud puppy, old lasagna slides, grampus, and Allegheny river monster.” 

The plaintiffs include the Center for Biological Diversity, Waterkeeper Alliance Inc., Waterkeepers Chesapeake Inc., Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, and Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association. They explained that the eastern hellbender is a “large, fully aquatic salamander” which was previously found in 15 states including Mississippi, Georgia, New York, and states in between, but currently it is harder to find. 

According to the filing, the Center for Biological Diversity asked in April 2010 for the species to be considered threatened or endangered, citing evidence that shows it has disappeared from multiple rivers and streams and that their decline is expected to continue.  Further, the groups said the eastern hellbender is an “‘indicator species for aquatic habitats’ and that their decline shows that the remaining populations are either declining or are expected to decline unless their habitats are protected from pollution. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service, the complaint explained, finally issued a finding on the 2010 request in 2019, and ruled that the determination was not warranted.  The plaintiffs’ alleged that the defendant did not use the best available data in making its determination and did not provide a rational explanation. Additionally, the plaintiffs purported that the defendant combined its analysis for endangered and threatened, and so it did not sufficiently analyze if the species is threatened. 

“The Service’s disregard for the legal requirements of the (Endangered Species Act) and the best available scientific information about the species led to an arbitrary and unlawful decision,” the complaint said. 

The plaintiffs asked the court to declare the defendant’s finding unlawful, to vacate the finding, and to issue injunctive relief requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to quickly issue a new determination on the eastern hellbender. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, which represents the plaintiffs, explained in a press release that almost 80 percent of hellbender populations have either gone extinct or are in decline, and cited water pollution, deforestation, and development as some major causes. 

Brain Segge with the Center for Biological Diversity said, “Hellbenders, like humans, need clean water to survive. The hellbender’s plight shows that we aren’t doing enough to care for our rivers and streams across the eastern United States. … We hope this lawsuit will compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to give hellbenders the protections they desperately need to survive.”