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Help the Hellbender Team Honored as Friends of Conservation

Dr. Rod Williams, extension wildlife specialist Nick Burgmeier and the Help the Hellbender team wereMembers of the Purdue Help the Hellbender Lab pose in a forested landscape in November 2023 honored for their collaboration with partners, outreach to the community and awareness education with the 2023 Indiana Friend of Conservation Award on January 9 in Indianapolis. The award, sponsored by Brownfield Ag News and presented by the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (IASWCD) at its annual Conservation Awards Luncheon, recognizes individuals of entities who have made an outstanding contribution to soil and water conservation in Indiana. State level honorees are named in the corporate, individual and nonprofit/government categories.

Burgmeier and Eliza Hudson, the Farmers Helping Hellbenders Project Coordinator for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, accepted the award on the Help the Hellbender team’s behalf.

The team was nominated for the state level award in the nonprofit/government category by virtue of receiving the Washington County Soil & Water Conservation District’s Friend of Conservation Award in February.

The eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) is a large, fully aquatic salamander,An eastern hellbender salamander swims nicknamed the snot otter, water dog, devil dog, Allegheny alligator and water eel among other things. Their decline statewide has been documented as far back as the early-to-mid 1900s as a result of habitat loss and poor water quality. Hellbenders play an important role in aquatic ecosystems and are indicators of clean water.

For much of the last 17 years, Williams and his team have been researching eastern hellbenders, spearheading regional conservation efforts and advancing hellbender captive propagation, or the rearing of this ancient animal in captivity and their eventual return to the wild. The partnership had a major breakthrough over the summer with the documentation of a young hellbender salamander in the Blue River while conducting routine surveys. This discovery is significant because over the past three to four decades, only adult hellbenders have been documented in the Blue River. The presence of a young salamander suggests that conservation efforts and rearing programs are accomplishing their goals for the recovery of this endangered species.

The Help the Hellbender lab is actively collaborating with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy as well as several other partners across 13 states on a number of conservation projects and educational opportunities for teachers and childrenfarmers and more.

The newest addition to the partnership’s conservation efforts is the Farmers Helping Hellbenders project, which offers funding opportunities to producers in the Blue River – Sinking Watershed to implement conservation practices on their land to assist with the recovery of Eastern Hellbenders and improvement of aquatic resources.

The project, which is made possible by a $2.7 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, aims to improve hellbender habitat in a four-county region in south central Indiana, the only remaining habitat for hellbenders in the state, by expanding the use of agricultural conservation practices that lead to decreased sedimentation in local rivers systems. Williams talks more about hellbenders and the Farmers Helping Hellbenders project in this YouTube video.

Eligible producers and forest land owners who wish to implement conservation practices on their land should discuss their options with their local district conservationist. For more information or to submit an application, contact your local district conservationist by visiting Farmers.gov/Service-locator.

The Help the Hellbender Lab has been honored several times in the last two years, beginning with the Bayou Bill Conservation Award from the Hoosier Outdoor Writers Association in October 2022. In February 2023, the Washington County SWCD Friends of Conservation Award followed. Then, in March 2023, the Indiana Hellbender Partnership received the Budd Denneman Partners in Conservation Excellence award from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wildlife. 

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