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More hellbenders given home in Blue River

More hellbenders given home in Blue River
More hellbenders given home in Blue River
A team of experts and community members releases several Eastern hellbender salamanders in a Harrison County section of Blue River last Tuesday. Submitted photo

It’s not uncommon to see people spending time in Blue River. Often, they are canoing or kayaking or maybe just taking a dip.

However, a group last Tuesday that was in an area of one of the cleanest rivers in Indiana was on a mission: to release an endangered species — the Eastern hellbender salamander — back into the river.

Nick Burgmeier, a research biologist and Extension wildlife specialist of Purdue University, along with community members from Purdue Extension Harrison County, Harrison County 4-H, Crawford County Soil & Water Conservation District, O’Bannon Woods State Park, Harrison-Crawford State Forest, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management, Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Gardens, and Indianapolis Zoo gathered at a location in Blue River in Harrison County.

Before the year is over, this team of experts and community members will release a total of 180 4-year-old hellbenders in five different locations along the river.

Adults weren’t the only ones who got to participate in this experience of releasing hellbenders. 4-H youth members who exhibited a 4-H Wildlife Project at the Harrison County 4-H Fair were invited to the release and got to see the hellbenders up close and ask questions of the biologist. Each of youth participant was able to release a live hellbender.

More hellbenders given home in Blue River
Hellbenders wait in a bucket to be released into Blue River. Submitted photo

The Eastern hellbender is one of the largest salamanders in North America. They are fully aquatic and require cool, well-oxygenated rivers and streams with high quality water and habitat. This means that the presence of these “snot otters,” as they have been affectionately nicknamed, is a good indicator of a healthy stream ecosystem.

In Indiana, the Eastern hellbender salamanders are only found in the Blue River watershed; however, they used to have a wider range. Their population had drastically dropped due to pollution and modification of their habitat, according to experts.

Purdue University along with the previously listed partners, have worked on projects to ensure protection of the Blue River from erosion, pollution and more.

The hellbenders that are being released this year were raised in captivity, in a high-flow system that mimics the natural habitat of the Blue River.

Each hellbender is released in a large temporary mesh cage that is placed over a permanent rock-filled structure called a cobble bed. The hellbenders can burrow between the rocks. For several days after their release, the salamanders remain in the soft release cage to allow them time to acclimate to their new environment.

Then, the temporary cage is removed, and they are free to move throughout the river. The cages help ensure that they stay in the general area after they are released, where they will mate and populate that section of Blue River.

Experts said the growing population of the Eastern hellbender salamander indicates the improvement of the Blue River watershed and the hope for the survival of this endangered species.

For more information about helping the hellbender, visit ag.purdue.edu/department/extension/hellbender. This website gives visitors a virtual tour of how to help, where to report a sighting, informational videos, links and articles, as well as offers a Hellbender Havoc Game.

For more information about Harrison County 4-H or Purdue Extension Harrison County, visit extension.purdue.edu/harrison or call the office at 812-738-4236.

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