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Endangered Hellbender Salamander: Omen of Poor Water Quality in MO?

Inadequate sewage systems destroy the habitats of the Ozark hellbender salamander. (Jeromy Applegate/USFWS)
Inadequate sewage systems destroy the habitats of the Ozark hellbender salamander. (Jeromy Applegate/USFWS)
October 3, 2017

ST. LOUIS – It can be challenging to make people care about an endangered species of giant salamander that goes by names including the Ozark hellbender and the snot otter. But environmentalists in Missouri are calling upon officials to recognize that the ample amphibian's ranks are dwindling because water quality in the southern part of the state is worsening.

Ken Midkiff, spokesman for the Sierra Club's Missouri chapter, says the issue is far bigger than the sizable salamander alone.

"The hellbender is sort of like a canary in a coal mine," he says. "The hellbender is simply an indication that we have poor water quality in certain Ozark streams."

While the hellbender was designated an endangered species in 2011, Midkiff says legislators and the Environmental Protection Agency need to also designate critical habitats, because habitat degradation is the number one cause of decline.

Opponents of the critical habitat designation argue that there are sufficient protections given to the salamanders simply under the endangered species designation.

Midkiff points to construction near the Current, Jack Forks and Eleven Point rivers of the Missouri Ozarks as causes of decreases in water quality. The Ozark hellbender is the largest aquatic salamander in the country and Midkiff says if you spot one you'll certainly understand its name.

"It looks like a demon," he adds. They're large, 24 inches, they're kind of flat. They're sometimes called a 'snot otter' because they can bend their body, they can go under rocks and things."

Midkiff says if water quality is so poor that it's harming the hellbender, then it isn't good for humans either.

Kevin Patrick Allen, Public News Service - MO