Wildlife Commission Debunks Hellbender Bounty Rumor

Author: NCWRC blogger/Tuesday, May 9, 2017/Categories: Blog, Conservation, Education, Wildlife Watching

Wildlife Commission Debunks Hellbender Bounty Rumor

A $200 bounty on hellbenders? Say it’s not so.

“That is a rumor and absolutely untrue,” said Lori Williams, a Wildlife Diversity biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “Furthermore, the Eastern hellbender is listed as a species of special concern in North Carolina. Harming, harassing, collecting or killing one is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which can result in a fine and up to 120 days in jail.”

Hellbenders are one of the largest salamanders found in North Carolina, averaging 16-17 inches long but can grow up to 24 inches long.  

Also called the “water dog,” “snot otter,” “Alleghany alligator,” among other names, the hellbender is a harmless, giant aquatic salamander found in fast-moving, clean mountain streams in western North Carolina. It was once common but has disappeared throughout a lot of its habitat, due mainly to declining water quality, habitat degradation, and persecution — hence, the reason it’s protected as a species of special concern in the state.  

Essentially, hellbenders breathe through their skin, which is why they are sensitive to poor water quality.  They are considered a “bioindicator,” or a species that can tell us about degrading environmental conditions when conditions first start changing. They are active during the daytime, particularly in the spring, and can be found under large, flat rocks. If no rocks are around, they will seek refuge in submerged trees or holes in the streambank.

In addition to busting the hellbender bounty myth, Williams dispelled other common myths about hellbenders.

Myth No. 1: Hellbenders are poisonous, venomous, toxic or harmful.

Wrong on all levels. Although hellbenders are large, slimy and can be scary looking, particularly if you’ve never seen one before, they are nothing to fear, Williams said. They are harmless and not poisonous, venomous or toxic. And while they may try to bite if picked up, they will leave you alone, if you leave them alone.

Myth No. 2: Hellbenders negatively impact trout populations.

Not true. Hellbenders eat mainly crayfish, although they may occasionally go after a trout on a line or stringer, looking for an easy meal. They may also scarf unsuspecting minnows and scavenge for dead fish, discarded bait or other dead animals. However, fish can be bigger predators of young or larval hellbenders than hellbenders are on fish. 

Myth No. 3: Catching a hellbender will bring you bad luck.

On the contrary, these harmless, giant salamanders are very good luck because their presence in a body of water indicates good water quality for people, fish and wildlife alike.

“It is very important that citizens speak up and help dispel the negative myths, misconceptions, rumors, and outright untruths that abound with this species,” Williams said. “People speaking out to correct misinformation about hellbenders can help us conserve this unique species, which is an iconic part of our Appalachian heritage and natural history.  Negative myths about hellbenders serve no good purpose, particularly when the species already is in significant decline, or already gone completely, from a large part of its range.”

Want to help the hellbender? Here’s how.

Williams, along with other Commission biologists and agency partners, began a long-term inventory and monitoring project for hellbenders in 2007. They want to know where hellbenders are located and how populations are doing. If you find a hellbender, email Williams (lori.williams@ncwildlife.org) with the location (physical location or GPS coordinates), and picture, if you have one. Or you can call the Wildlife Commission’s new Wildlife Helpline at (919) 707-4011 or toll free (866) 318-2401 and provide details of the observation.

People enjoying streams and rivers can also help hellbenders by not moving or disturbing river rocks, especially the large ones that hellbenders use as shelters and nesting habitat. When people move rocks to build dams, chutes for tubing, or even to stack rocks as “rock art,” these actions can cause harm directly to large or small hellbenders that can get crushed underneath or by impacting the local population’s ability to nest successfully.

Finally, if you see someone trying to harm, kill, harass or collect a hellbender, report that person immediately by calling the Wildlife Commission at 1-800-662-7137.

Read the Eastern Hellbender in North Carolina fact sheet to learn more about these fascinating amphibians!




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