Wildlife conservation tends to save charismatic species. That might be about to change

Peter Petokas, from the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College, and Michelle Herman, from the Wetland Trust, with a young hellbender they helped raise in captivity and released in 2018.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

Updated September 12, 2022 7:28 PM ET

A soaring bald eagle is mesmerizing. A growling grizzly bear is impressive. A master of swimming hell? You may not be able to imagine this one.

On a recent hot summer day, biologist Michelle Herman carefully samples this type of rare giant salamander to search for invasive fungi near a tributary of the Susquehanna River. She is one of a small group of biologists, state wildlife technicians, and volunteers supporting the hellbenders in this area, where their numbers have dwindled sharply.

“They don’t have a lot of defenders, so I’m happy to be a hell defender,” says Herman, who works for The Wetland Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Some high-profile species, such as the bald eagle, are conservation success stories. But thousands of less charismatic species are competing for scarce resources in the United States, with up to a million threatened with extinction worldwide, according to the United Nations.

Amphibians, such as the masters of hell, are in decline for a number of reasons ranging from habitat destruction to climate change. Hellbenders live under giant boulders in clean, fast-flowing streams, where they like to eat crayfish. Their presence is a sign of good water quality, Herman says.

Existing federal conservation funding only covers about 5% of what is needed to help the more than 12,000 “species most needed for conservation,” including the ruler of hell, according to the America’s Fish and Wildlife Alliance.

The masters of hell live under giant boulders in the creek bed.  Petokas and an undergrad use scuba gear to try to find them.

The masters of hell live under giant boulders in the creek bed. Petokas and an undergrad use scuba gear to try to find them.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

Champions of the species here have so far cobbled together resources from the Bronx Zoo and elsewhere to breed them in captivity, tag them with microchips, and release them into the wild. But they’ve also tried a number of unorthodox tactics to raise the animal’s profile and attract conservation funds.

Peter Petokas, a research associate at Lycoming College’s Clean Water Institute, has created a crowdfunding page for work. His work inspired a group of high school students who lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to declare him the official state amphibian.

“They borrowed my Hellbender suitwhich is really cool,” says Petokas. After two years of lobbying elected officials, the students succeeded. But none of that led to more funding, he says.

The masters of hell have several nicknames related to their unusual appearance, including

The masters of hell have several nicknames related to their unusual appearance, including “lasagna lizard”, “snot otter”, and “Allegheny alligator”.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

Federal funding tends to go to game species

Since the 1930s, the United States has taxed hunting and licensing, as well as firearms, ammunition, and other equipment, to raise funds for conservation. In the 1950s, this model was expanded to include fishing licenses and equipment with the Dingell–Johnson Act.

Mike Leahy, director of wildlife policy, hunting and fishing at the National Wildlife Federation, says money often goes to species that hunters and anglers care about, such as deer and elk. .

“There’s been this gap in getting funding for species that aren’t hunted or fished,” he says.

But many species identified as in need of conservation have a less direct relationship with humans. Invertebrates such as molluscs and insects, as well as fish and bird species are all threatened in large numbers, according to the US Department of the Interior.

Many conservationists talk about the loss of these species like flying an airplane while slowly removing every bolt, or part of Jenga. Each disappearance weakens entire ecosystems. But others prefer to think of conservation in positive terms, as an investment.

“I think the real value of preserving a truly rare and unique species is having it there for the future, for everyone to enjoy,” says Petokas.

A master of hell waits for his checkup in a container of river water.  The animals are entirely aquatic and breathe through frilly folds that run along the sides of their bodies.

A master of hell waits for his checkup in a container of river water. The animals are entirely aquatic and breathe through frilly folds that run along the sides of their bodies.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

Bill to provide more funding has bipartisan support

Wildlife advocates hope that this imbalance may soon change. A bill called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this summer, would dramatically increase federal government spending to protect American wildlife by create a $1.3 billion annual fund for conservation.

Led by Senators Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), the Senate bill has more than 40 co-sponsors, including 16 Republicans.

“By conserving wildlife habitat, we will also preserve outdoor recreational activities like hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing that support millions of additional jobs,” Blunt said. earlier this year.

A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technician brings two hellbenders back to the rocks of the creek where they live.

A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technician brings two hellbenders back to the rocks of the creek where they live.

Laura Benshoff/NPR

The money would go to states and tribal governments to decide how to spend. The law would also require 15% of the amount to support federally listed endangered species. But it is unclear whether the bill, which has yet to find a source of funding to offset the cost of increased conservation spending, will go to a vote this year.

“If it passes, [it] really going to change the paradigm. It will be an absolute game changer,” says Sarina Jepsen, director of the endangered species program at the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization specializing in invertebrate conservation.

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