Hellbent on Saving Rivers

Article Published: May. 26, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Hellbent on Saving Rivers

Rocky the Hellbender will be the guest of honor at June 4's RiverFest.

Photo submitted


Appalachian Voices' second annual RiverFest flows into Valle Crucis June 4, offering community members and visitors the chance to celebrate - and learn about - one of the High Country's most precious resources: Water.

Appropriately, the festival takes place at Valle Crucis Park, which borders the Watauga River. In addition to live music, local food and a bounty of activities, RiverFest also offers festival-goers the chance to enjoy the river and meet one of its more reclusive denizens: The hellbender salamander.

Affectionately known as snot otters, devil dogs and Appalachian alligators, hellbenders typically average between 12- to 15-inches long and serve as natural indicators of a waterway's cleanliness.
The sizable salamanders thrive in clean, pristine waterways, a quality that Appalachian Voices - a Boone-based regional environmental advocacy group - hopes to maintain.

Though hellbenders are rather hard to come by, Lori Williams of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission will bring a hellbender (named Rocky) to RiverFest, allowing folks the chance to get up close and personal, while learning about the elusive creature.

For those unfamiliar with hellbenders, Appalachian Voices has provided a creature feature on its RiverFest mascot.

Hellbenders: Sasquatch of the Salamanders
From Appalachian Voices
Cryptic, territorial and elusive are traits inherent to the hellbender salamander, a unique and formidable-looking creature with almost prehistoric appeal.

The Eastern hellbender is the largest aquatic salamander in the United States, affectionately known as the snot otter, devil dog and Appalachian alligator. The giant amphibian averages from 12 to 15 inches, but has been known to grow more than 2 feet in length and hides almost reclusively during the day beneath flat rocks in shallow, clean and quick moving streams.

"If a fisherman catches a hellbender, they'll kill them," said Jesse Pope, director of education at Grandfather Mountain. "The reason for that is that they think the hellbenders are eating the fish, but that's just not true."

Rarely seen due to its nocturnal nature and secluded lifestyle, the hellbender has a voracious appetite, but not for fish. These aquatic giants hunt for crayfish, toads and salamanders among other tasty morsels. The hellbender is exclusively found in the mountains and surrounding local areas in the eastern United States, with their largest concentration, here, in western North Carolina.

Provided their mountain rivers and streams stay clear and unpolluted, a hellbender will start reproducing at age 4 and can live for more than 30 years in ideal conditions.

These unique creatures are very important indicators of water quality because, as adults, they breathe entirely through their skin. That makes them extremely sensitive to pollution and siltation.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as near threatened, and they are close to qualifying for vulnerable status. In addition to the threat of misled fishermen, the hellbenders are threatened by habitat loss and degradation.

"Hellbenders have to have good water quality and relatively low sediments in the water," Pope said. "Sediments come from development, impacting streams, road runoff and storm water runoff."

Hellbender populations have dramatically declined in the last 25 years, and, even though several institutions are making heroic attempts to breed them in captivity, none have been successful.

"It is critically important for us to protect pristine mountain streams in order to save these rare and threatened salamanders," said Donna Lisenby Watauga Riverkeeper. "We simply have to stop strip mining in Appalachia, because it contributes tone of sediment and pollutants to these irreplaceable headwaters streams."

"The concern is that a lot of the hellbenders we're finding are big hellbenders, 15 to 20 years old," Pope said. "We're not finding the little ones. This raises concern. Are they remnant populations that are there? Are they no longer reproducing? Are these the last hellbenders that are going to be in those streams?"

Keep a keen eye out at the festival; perhaps you'll catch a glance of this elusive, rare and spectacular salamander. Rumor has it that you might be able to get a one-of-a-kind Hellbender T-shirt at the festival because, "The Riverkeeper team at Appalachian Voices is hellbent on saving our beloved mountain rivers," Lisenby said.

Other creatures

Appalachian rivers - the headwaters of drinking water for much of the eastern seaboard - are teeming with wild creatures, each a unique indicator of the health of our waters.

Dragonfly nymphs are one such species. These colorful flying insects actually spend the majority of their lives in the nymph phase in rivers, feeding on mosquito larva for up to five years before developing into graceful, soaring insects.

Known as "nature's jet ski," the young nymphs actually propel themselves rapidly through the water by expelling water through their backsides-no wonder no wonder scientists dubbed this the "immature" phase!

A more rare creature is the tiny bog turtle. At 3 to 4 inches full grown, they are the smallest turtle in North America and are easy to distinguish with their dark-brown shell and distinctive red, orange or yellow blotchy marking on either side of the neck.

They prefer to live in wetland areas, such as wet meadows, fens and bogs. Bog turtles can live up to 30 years and are threatened by human development as well as the illegal pet trade.
Read more about these creatures at appvoices.org/riverfest.

And more

Other RiverFest activities include live music from Bill Adams, Upright & Breathin' and the Appalachian Junior Musicians, along with arts and crafts, hayrides, river floating, children's activities and more.

The second annual RiverFest is scheduled for Saturday, June 4, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Valle Crucis Park, just off Broadstone Road in Valle Crucis. Admission is free.

For more information or to volunteer, call festival coordinator Parker Stevens at (828) 262-1500 or e-mail (parker@appvoices.org) For more on Appalachian Voices, visit http://www.appvoices.org.

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