The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) this week granted the Ozark hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishopi) protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but made the unusual decision not to declare critical habitat for the rare, giant salamanders because, it said, doing so could open it to threats from those who would illegally collect the species for the international pet trade.

Ozark hellbenders are North America's largest amphibians, often topping off at 60 centimeters in length, and because of that size they are highly valued by collectors. A study published in Applied Herpetology in 2007 found evidence of rampant illegal hellbender collection between 1969 and 1989, including 171 individuals collected during one September weekend in 1980. The study blamed the illegal pet trade as one of the major factors in the 75 percent decline of Ozark hellbender populations over the past few decades. According to FWS, there are only an estimated 590 of the salamanders left in the wild. It is found only in rivers and streams in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

Other factors damaging the hellbender population have included loss of habitat, poor water quality, mining, sedimentation and the introduction of pharmaceuticals into the water supply, including estrogen, which have lowered male sperm counts enough to all but stop wild hellbender reproduction. (Another study published in Applied Herpetology, also in 2007, helped to make that connection.)

Moreover, the deadly chytrid fungus—which has already caused several amphibian extinctions—has also been observed in hellbenders.

As a result of all of these factors, the FWS says that Ozark hellbenders face extinction within 20 years, making protection for them essential for their survival. "The Ozark hellbender faces extinction without the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act," said FWS Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius in a prepared statement. "Listing provides tools and an infrastructure within which partners can pool resources and expertise to help save this species."

FWS first declared the Ozark hellbender a candidate for ESA protection in 2001. It proposed upgrading the species to full ESA protection in 2010 following a series of petitions from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Missouri listed it as an endangered species under its state laws in 2003.

The ESA makes it illegal to kill, harm or "take" a protected species from the wild, and most species listed under the act have critical habitat designated, indicating areas that are essential to the conservation of a species. The hellbender won't get that critical habitat designation, because it would then be a matter of public record. According to the FWS press release, "the service determined that designating critical habitat under the ESA for the Ozark hellbender is not prudent because the designation would require publication of detailed descriptions of hellbender locations and habitat, making illegal collection for the pet trade more likely."

The CBD criticized the decision to not declare critical habitat. "Though we're very pleased the Ozark hellbender's getting Endangered Species Act protection, we're disappointed that the service refused to designate critical habitat, which is a key tool for saving species from extinction," CBD attorney Collette Adkins Giese said in a prepared statement.

In addition to protecting the Ozark hellbender under the Endangered Species Act, FWS also listed both it and the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) under Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which will restrict exports of the species from the U.S. and import into any of the convention's other 174 signatory nations.

Unfortunately, all of this may come too late. As a result of pollution in their native waters, many Ozark hellbenders now suffer from deformities such as missing limbs, toes or eyes, complete blindness, or tumors. But still, the listing is a first step in the right direction in keeping this species from extinction.

Photos by Jill Utrup via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service