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NEPARC Annual Meeting

Posted on Aug 22, 2014

Last week I got the opportunity to attend my first NEPARC (Northeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation) annual meeting held at Allegany State Park in Salamanca, New York. For those that aren’t familiar with the not for profit, NEPARC is a regional subset of PARC or Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. This organization forms inclusive partnerships with like-minded professionals and citizens that are dedicated to the conservation of amphibians, reptiles and their respective habitats throughout each region of the United States and beyond. PARC interacts with federal and state agencies along with other organizations and consultants to coordinate efforts to tackle the concerns surrounding amphibian and reptile population declines.

While at the meeting, I learned a great deal about the various issues our herptofauna face throughout the northeast. From Maine to Virginia, a number of projects are currently underway in order to gain a better understanding of the most under studied and imperiled species and utilize best management practices to conserve said populations. From New York in particular, I learned of the challenges  regarding our local Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus allegheniensis) population and head starting program that was established a few years ago under the supervision of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Seneca Nation of Indians Fish and Wildlife Department to address such issues.

Only a face a mother could love? Nah! Here is a young eastern Hellbender being raised at the facility.

Only a face a mother could love? Here is a young Eastern Hellbender being raised at the rearing facility in Western New York. Notice the laterally compressed body plan of this prehistoric amphibian. Hellbenders are well built for hunting and breeding beneath large flat rocks within our region’s waterways.

Here, at the upper limits of the hellbender’s range, populations have been dwindling as needed resources such as clean, free-flowing stream systems, adequate cover rocks and breeding habitat are becoming more scarce. Reports of dead hellbenders along stream beds, likely killed after accidental catchings by anglers, has been a common cause of loss of individuals within New York as well. The spread of infections such as chytridiomycosis (chytrid for short) caused by the Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd) fungus has had an impact on hellbender numbers within recent years, along with many other amphibians with overlapping ranges also. In response to such challenges, the head starting program was launched to rebuild a healthy population comprised of individuals of varying age classes (as many existing populations are made up of mostly older adults), restore habitat and educate landowners, anglers, etc. of the value of these unusual stream dwellers.

Tanks held two to three hellbender juveniles each in  the hellbender rearing facility.

Tanks held two to three hellbender juveniles each in the hellbender rearing facility.

During the meeting, we got the chance to visit the rearing facility where the hellbenders are raised from eggs and cared for until their release between four and five years old. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rains received earlier in the week, we did not get the chance to assist in releasing the hellbenders that were ready to leave the facility, but got the opportunity to see them up close and learn of the successes and need for more work on the project. Interestingly, DEC biologists have been finding that the head started hellbenders have been traveling downstream from their release site, and many have been impacted by predation or chytrid, which seemingly hasn’t had the same fatal affects on the wild hellbenders within the same stream system.

5 year old Eastern Hellbenders ready to be released into a nearby tributary of the Allegheny River.

Five year old Eastern Hellbenders ready to be released into a nearby tributary of the Allegheny River.

Along with the hellbender head starting program, a rearing initiative for Blanding’s turtles has begun in New York as well, while many other projects related to Blanding’s turtles are ongoing throughout the northeast also.

Blanding's turtle hatchling at the rearing facility.

Here is a Blanding’s turtle hatchling at the rearing facility. Blanding’s turtles are easily recognizable by their yellow throat and chin and are considered a threatened species in New York.

As intended, the meeting provided an excellent opportunity to connect with many people working in the field or interested in herptofauna conservation and will hopefully result in future collaborations for projects working to address some of the issues influencing our amphibian and reptile species. While I mostly touched on the New York hellbender rearing program and ongoing conservation work in this particular blog, there were a number of other projects and species of greatest concern discussed and presented at the meetings; however, hellbenders were a big topic throughout the three day event and is a species that we here at RTPI are attempting to understand more about as well. Hellbenders along with other amphibian and reptile species often go unseen, but they deserve attention and preservation just as any other species do. They play a vital role in our local and regional ecosystems and a number of our actions negatively affect them. As our surveys and conservation work continues, stay tuned to learn more about what we are doing to help herps and how you can help.

Elyse Henshaw
Conservation Technician