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NC biologists mount ‘search-and-rescue operation’ for America’s largest salamander before dam removal

A prehistoric creature with many names lurks in the depths of the Watauga River. The eastern hellbender is a docile amphibian and a good sign for water quality in the areas where it’s found.
Zachary Turner
/
WFAE
A prehistoric creature with many names lurks in the depths of the Watauga River. The eastern hellbender is a docile amphibian and a good sign for water quality in the areas where it’s found.

One morning this week, Ben Dalton, a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, stood on the rocky shoreline, where he donned a wetsuit and snorkel.

“I am about to snorkel for some hellbenders on sort of a search-and-rescue operation,” Dalton said.

Flashlight in hand, Dalton dove for the eastern hellbender salamander. Despite sporting an average length of nearly a foot and a half, there’s nothing to fear from this slimy goliath … unless you’re a crayfish.

“They have that big mouth that opens real wide, pulls the water in, sucks the crayfish in with the water,” Dalton said. “They just clamp down and crush, crush, crush.”

Biologist Ben Dalton is diving for eastern hellbenders in the Watauga River to relocate them to a downstream site where they will repopulate the site of a previous dam removal.
Zachary Turner
/
WFAE
Biologist Ben Dalton is diving for eastern hellbenders in the Watauga River to relocate them to a downstream site where they will repopulate the site of a previous dam removal.

The hellbenders Dalton was searching for can live more than 30 years in the river — provided he can get them out of the way of the dam that’s about to be demolished.

“It’s either this or they’re going to get washed away or buried,” Dalton said.

Next week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and environmental groups Mountain True and American Rivers will begin deconstructing the Shull’s Mill Dam.

“This dam will be excavated down to the natural river channel, down to bedrock,” said Andy Hill, high country regional director of Mountain True. He’s also the Watauga riverkeeper.

The goal is to return the Watauga River to its natural state, unobstructed for 78 miles from its headwaters in Grandfather Mountain to Watauga Lake in Eastern Tennessee. Removing the dam and restoring the river will create habitats for fish, insects and hellbenders alike.

“This dam, like all dams, is a barrier to aquatic connectivity,” Hill said. “Fish, mussels, hellbenders — they can’t make it through this dam, even despite it being breached in the middle.”

It would also open up additional opportunities for fishing and paddling in a region where outdoor recreation is a billion-dollar industry. Flooding in the 1940s damaged the derelict dam. An old sycamore tree and many river birches shaded an eye-shaped hole in the middle of the concrete wall, where water flowed freely.

Dam removal and river restoration projects are gaining momentum in the United States. More than 2,000 dams have been removed nationally, and 80 of those removals occurred in the past year. Erin Singer McCombs, American Rivers’ Southeast conservation director, said we still have a long way to go. In North Carolina alone, there are about 28,000 dams, only a small percentage of which still function.

“When you have an unused piece of infrastructure, it’s the most responsible thing to get it off the landscape so the river can be healthy and thrive,” said McCombs. She said most dams were designed with a lifespan of 50 years. The average age of N.C. dams is more than double that.

How many biologists does it take to ‘goose a ‘gator’?

Andy Hill joined Dalton on the bank, and the pair submerged. It’s not long before they locate a hellbender. Dalton surfaced to address the aquatic troops, a group of grad students and lab technicians from Appalachian State University.

“You can see the entrance is on that side,” Dalton said. He gestured underneath him to one side of a 4-foot-wide boulder that weighed hundreds of pounds. The hellbender had made a den under the rock. “Looks like a small adult.”

Dalton laid out his plan.

“I’m going to try to … sort of goose the hellbender and see if it will shoot out the front,” Dalton said.

“Goosing” a hellbender entails encouraging the salamander to leave its den with a soft, bendy rod.

The amphibian hides under a large slab, with a den that recedes far back under the rock. Hellbenders spend most of their time like this, flattening their wrinkly bodies to hide. This has earned them the nickname “old lasagna sides,” among others.

“There are sillier names that people have latched on to like the snot otter, the Allegheny alligator,” Dalton said.

Grad student Hannah Woodburn weighs the hellbender. He’s a mature male, but young. The pristine state of his body indicates that he hasn’t yet competed with other males during mating season.
Zachary Turner
/
WFAE
Grad student Hannah Woodburn weighs the hellbender. He’s a mature male, but young. The pristine state of his body indicates that he hasn’t yet competed with other males during mating season.

After several minutes, Dalton was unable to goose this “gator.” They waited until reinforcements arrived with scuba gear. Dalton and Hill re-submerged. The crew from Appalachian State University surrounded the slab with tools resembling medieval polearms to lift the rock.

Dalton disappeared under the water. He gave the gang a thumbs up, and they lifted up the slab. A second thumbs up told them to hold steady while he extracted the hellbender.

It took seconds. Through a column of bubbles from his respirator, Dalton emerged triumphant to the sounds of cheers, and one “hell yeah.” They place the amphibian in a mesh bag. He’s a mature male, probably 7-12 years old.

“We’ll take a bunch of different data about the length, bite marks, the sex, whether or not it has any injuries, if it has all its toes,” said Hannah Woodburn, a graduate student at the Aquatic Conservation Lab at Appalachian State University.

In total, the group was able to find and relocate eight hellbenders from the Shull’s Mill area.

Then Lori Williams, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, oriented the salamander in a modified PVC tube with measuring tape along the bottom and prepared to inject a tracker in his tail.

“We don’t want to get any bone,” said Williams as she bore down on the hellbender’s tail to inject the tag. “We want to get the fat of the tail.”

She pressed the injector through the amphibian’s tough skin and muscly tail. The device clicked twice, and a quick scan revealed that the injection was a success

This hellbender was relocated to a site about 12 miles downstream, where this same group removed the Ward’s Mill Dam three years ago. Now that that area has had time to return to its natural state, it has become a prime habitat for giant salamanders.

That’s the plan for this dam as well, according to Mountain True’s Andy Hill.

“We’re going to replant this area with natives like elderberry, ninebark, silky willows, silky dogwood,” Hill said.

Restoring the natural flow and flora to this stretch of river will make it more resilient to human impacts. As the water warms, it holds less dissolved oxygen for fish and amphibians to breathe. The dam in its current state also traps sediment, increasing erosion downstream. Removing the dam will create an ecosystem better equipped to weather a warming planet.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission lists hellbenders as a species of “special concern,” which means it’s illegal to take hellbenders from the wild. Both sites listed in this story are private property, and the Watauga riverkeeper requests that the public refrain from trespassing. If you do see a hellbender in the wild, you can help researchers by sending a photo and location to Lori Williams at the N.C. WRC.

Dalton also said there’s a little something everyone can do to help a hellbender. He encouraged hikers to refrain from stacking river rocks, even if it looks pretty for social media.

“Some of those rocks could be where hellbenders live,” Dalton said.

Biologist Lori Williams measures the hellbender. This young male was just over 14 inches long. The second salamander the group caught later that day measured 17 inches.
Zachary Turner
/
WFAE
Biologist Lori Williams measures the hellbender. This young male was just over 14 inches long. The second salamander the group caught later that day measured 17 inches.

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Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.