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Missouri hellbenders win federal protection

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A salamander species that lives in Missouri waterways has been granted protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Missouri’s eastern hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America, growing to more than 2 feet in length. The amphibians can be found in the Meramec River and its tributaries, as well as watersheds in south-central parts of the state.

The agency’s designation means that the state’s population, which is geographically isolated from other species in the eastern U.S., is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The state has only several hundred of them remaining in the wild.

“The declines are more severe in Missouri,” said Karen Herrington, a USFWS field supervisor based in Columbia, Mo.

This baby hellbender was bred at the St. Louis Zoo.

The St. Louis Zoo has been working to preserve the species, with a 32-foot-long, man-made Missouri stream for breeding hellbenders behind the scenes at the Herpetarium. At the zoo’s Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation, its first generation of hellbenders successfully bred in In 2018, with 39 larvae hatched. 

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity called the protection for the species in Missouri a positive step but contended that its populations also face challenges across its range from dam construction, sedimentation, disease, habitat destruction and climate change.

“Hellbenders desperately need the protections of the Endangered Species Act not only in Missouri, but everywhere they’re found,” said Brian Segee, the center’s senior attorney.

MetroSTL.com staff contributed to this report.

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