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Eastern hellbender

Hellbent

     A short film was produced by the Wild Lens Collective and Running Wild Media about a small community who fight big oil to protect their community and their beloved salamander - the hellbender. Learn more at hellbentfilm.com

Saving the snot otters

     The Eastern hellbender is one of the most extraordinary animals living secretly in the backyards of many Americans. This creature has existed in the freshwater streams of Appalachia for millions of years and is synonymous with healthy habitat. As a truly aquatic amphibian, this animal breathes through the folds of skin along its flanks, making it particularly susceptible to poor water quality. The hellbender is an important species in its ecosystem and consumes small invertebrates like crayfish, snails, insects, and small fish. 

     Hellbenders are primarily found hiding under large slabs of rock where they spend a majority of their lives. Once a year during the fall, the male hellbenders will wander around in search of a mate, and in doing so, will often fight with other rival males by biting.

 

     Hellbender populations are declining across their range which can be attributed to many challenges including soil erosion from agricultural development, diseases, poor quality and pollution. One challenge in particular that is affecting hellbender populations in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania is fracking. Oil and other geological natural resources are abundant in the area in which this animal lives, and resource extraction is booming across the region. Operations like fracking, pipeline development and ethylene cracker factories not only threaten the existence of these slamanaders, but the livelihoods of 26 million people. To fight back, one community used the legal system in their favor to grant Rights of Nature to the very river in their community containing hellbenders. Calling themselves the Hellbender Society, this group of community members prevented the installation of an injection well in Grant Township, Pennsylvania. Further, grassroots organizations like Fractracker use crowdsourcing to keep an eye on new pipeline development to warn communities of danger.​​ To keep this animal in the water, biologists at Ohio University work in tandem with community organizations to save the hellbender.

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     Healthy hellbenders are typically found in clean, fast moving freshwater streams. These hellbenders are part of an important ecosystem that supports millions of people through clean drinking water and recreation. Here, a fly fisherman takes advantage of this incredible ecosystem in Pennsylvania.

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     Pipeline development in southern Ohio threatens the stream ecosystems in which hellbenders flourish. Oftentimes, pipelines are constructed underneath these streams and while doing so, the habitat is destroyed. Topsoil from pipeline development will run into the water, smothering habitat for the hellbender. In addition, pipelines often leak, spilling chemicals into the water which kill its inhabitants.

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     Gas and oil development have left many communities in shambles after the excitement of economic boom gives way to broken promises and shattered ecosystems. Many communities are fighting back like the one of Grant Township, Pennsylvania. The community here fought back against the installment of an injection well along the Little Mahoning River, an area that has a hellbender population.

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     Most of the time, fracking operations are secretive about their work, locations, and developments. Many claim that the work the do falls under protection of “trade secrets” and gives them an excuse to hide information that may be critical to public health. As a result, many operations develop new pipelines, wells and pads without reporting it. Grassroots organizations are left being the ones responsible for monitoring and reporting development.

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     Biologists with Ohio University work to research the hellbender to better understand its ecology and biology. This data is critical in developing a better understanding of how to further protect hellbenders as well as what their populations are looking like across their range.

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     Hellbenders breathe through the folds of skin that lay along their flanks. This skin looks this way to maximize the surface area for maximum oxygen diffusion. Since these animals absorb so much from the world around them, water pollution can be exceptionally dangerous to these animals.

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     Further development for natural resource extraction as it pertains to oils can be seen here with the construction of the Shell ethylene cracker factory. This factory is designed to take resources collected from fracking and create nurdles. These nurdles are the raw materials used in making plastic and often spill into the environment. This factory is built near the Ohio river because it depends on millions of gallons of water to operate.

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     To fight back, this community employed legal protection to the river called “Rights of Nature.” This move granted legal personhood to the river and installing an injection well would be a violation of the rights of said river. By doing so, the community took a stand and said no to polluted drinking water and other associated dangers to fracking. This action saved their community and the hellbender.

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     Fractracker - one such grassroots organization, uses a network of volunteers to identify new pipeline development in oil hotspots. They also monitor these developments and report spills, leaks, and fires to the proper authorities when necessary. Fractracker abides by all laws and provides a valuable service to the community. They have developed a smart phone app that allows community members to track pipeline development and report issues for the betterment of public health.

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     Hellbenders are fascinating creatures and have a rich natural history that very little is understood. The need to conserve this species is greater than ever and many organizations are working to protect this species.

Photographer: Justin Grubb

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