Center for Biological Diversity Responds after Administration denies protection to the Eastern Hellbender Salamander and other imperiled species
WASHINGTON – The Center of Biological Diversity is accusing the Trump administration of “Utter Disdain” for the environment after the administration recently denied protections to the eastern hellbender, instead protecting a distinct population segment of hellbenders that makes up just one percent of the highly imperiled species. Eight other species were also denied protections.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. “This decision reeks of the Trump administration’s utter disdain for protecting our environment and the weird and wonderful creatures in it,” said Elise Bennett, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney working to protect reptiles and amphibians. “It flagrantly ignores the reality of the hellbender’s dire situation and gives these imperiled animals a big shove toward extinction.”
The hellbender is a fully aquatic salamander – the largest in North America – that has been steadily disappearing from streams in the eastern United States. The animals have been waiting for Endangered Species Act protection for more than eight years.
Seventy-eight percent of historically known hellbender populations have disappeared or are in decline. They face threats from chemical pollution and sedimentation caused by development, deforestation and dams.
The hellbender is particularly vulnerable to water contamination because of its permeable skin and sensitive eggs, which it lays in water.
Disease can also cause catastrophic loss of hellbenders. Emerging infectious diseases are on the rise, particularly among salamander populations, and hellbenders are showing symptoms of fungal infection across their range.
“The Trump administration made a clear choice to shrug off a species’ struggle against extinction,” said Bennett. “Saving the hellbender would also save rivers and streams that many Americans use, but denying protections puts all that at risk. There’s no question we’ll be carefully scrutinizing this one.”
The Trump administration also denied protection for eight other species, including two fish, a snail and three crayfish from the Southeast, the Chihuahua scurfpea and red-crowned parrot.
The administration has now denied protections for 55 species, while listing only sixteen under the Endangered Species Act. The Center is evaluating whether it will challenge the denial of protection for all of these species.
Known by colorful names like “devil dog,” “snot otter,” “grampus” and “Old Lasagna Sides,” the eastern hellbender can grow up to 2 feet long. Its nicknames reference the loose, frilly skin along its sides and the mucus-like secretions it expels when frightened. The hellbender lives in cool, free-flowing rivers and streams, where it hides under rocks to wait for passing prey.
The Center petitioned to protect the eastern hellbender under the Endangered Species Act in 2010. Today’s decision comes after two legal settlements the Center entered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 and 2013 to expedite protections.
Hellbender photo by Tierra Curry, Center for Biological Diversity
Unchecked mountaintop removal coal mining continues to harm communities, endangered species in Appalachia
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Center for Biological Diversity, Coal River Mountain Watch, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today for their failure to protect threatened northern long-eared bats at two proposed mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia. The mines will clear more than 1,000 acres of hardwood forest that are home to the rare bat, which was protected under the Endangered Species Act in April. The agencies have not put any specific measures in place to protect the bats from the mining activities, as required by law.
“The failure to protect these bats is the latest example of coal companies getting a free pass in Appalachia when it comes to complying with the Endangered Species Act and other laws designed to protect the health of people and the environment,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center. “The wink-and-a-nod compliance with the law is having devastating effects on wildlife and human communities in Appalachia.”
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the northern long-eared bat in 2010. The species has declined by 96 percent in its core range due to a lethal disease called white-nose syndrome. Because of the drastic impact of this disease, the bat is extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction.
The bat is found at both Republic Energy’s proposed Long Ridge mine on Coal River Mountain in Raleigh County, which will clear 664 acres of forest, and Jim Justice’s Big Creek mine in McDowell County, which will destroy 468 acres of forest. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and Fish and Wildlife Service are required to ensure that mining does not jeopardize the survival of the bats.
“Federal agencies need to do a better job of protecting both the northern long-eared bat and the people who live around these mines,” said Vernon Haltom, director of Coal River Mountain Watch. “Mountaintop removal is destroying wildlife and human communities in Appalachia and it is time for that to end.”
“The lack of effective protections for bats and other endangered species mirrors the lack of protection for Appalachian residents from surface mining impacts,” said Dianne Bady, founder and project coordinator at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
To try to address impacts to endangered species from surface mining, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement consulted with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996, resulting in a “biological opinion” that established very minimal requirements that must be met. According to today’s legal notice, the two mines in question have not established specific measures to protect northern long-eared bats as is required by that biological opinion. The groups also put the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on notice that its continued reliance on the 1996 document to avoid impacts to imperiled species is illegal. The outdated biological opinion fails to ensure the survival of the northern long-eared bat and many other species that have required the Endangered Species Act’s protection since 1996 and, that like the bat, are being affected by surface coal mining.
“Today’s notice is another example of how critical it is to have increased protections in Appalachia from surface mining,” said Liz Wiles with the West Virginia Sierra Club. “Federal agencies need to revamp protections for endangered species when it comes to surface mining, which will benefit both wildlife and people.”
Much new scientific information has been published recently documenting the devastating effects of surface coal mining in Appalachia on wildlife and people. Mining has now been linked to declines in birds, fish, salamanders, crawdads, insects and freshwater mussels. Mining threatens nearby communities with air and water pollution and risk of flooding. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies have now linked mining pollution in Appalachia to health problems, including increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects.
The proposed Big Creek mine is a case in point. In addition to destroying nearly 500 acres of native hardwood forest used by the bat, it is directly above a church and upstream of a Head Start center. It will also destroy more than five miles of streams, threatening another species that has been proposed for protection, the Big Sandy crayfish. More than one million acres of hardwood forest and more than 2,000 miles of streams have already been destroyed by surface coal mining in Appalachia.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
Coal River Mountain Watch is a West Virginia nonprofit organization that works to stop the destruction of communities and environment by mountaintop removal mining, to improve the quality of life of residents, and to help rebuild sustainable communities. The group is working to pass the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE).
The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition is national organization dedicated to the improvement of the environment and communities through education, grassroots organizing and coalition building, leadership development, strategic litigation and media outreach.
Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the country with more than 2.4 million members and supporters. Sierra Club’s mission is “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; and to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environments.”
Crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution, making them indicators of water quality
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – In response to a petition and lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed to protect two species of crayfish from Appalachia under the Endangered Species Act. The crayfishes have been lost from more than half of their ranges because of water pollution, primarily from coal mining. The Big Sandy crayfish is known only from the Big Sandy River basin in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia; the Guyandotte River crayfish is known only from the Guyandotte River basin in southern West Virginia.
“This listing proposal is historic because these are the first species to be proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act because of harm caused by mountaintop-removal coal mining,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center and a native of southeastern Kentucky. “For decades coal companies have gotten away with polluting Appalachia’s water and killing its species, but it is time for the Endangered Species Act to start being enforced in Appalachia.”
The Center and regional allies petitioned to protect the Big Sandy crayfish as an endangered species in 2010, and in 2012 the Center filed a lawsuit against the Service for failing to make a legally required decision on the petition. In response to that lawsuit, the Service was required to issue a finding in April 2015, leading to the recent listing proposal.
The Big Sandy crayfish has lost more than half of its range in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The newly discovered Guyandotte River crayfish, which was once thought to be the same as the Big Sandy crayfish but was recently discovered to be a new species, is now the most endangered crayfish in America, surviving only in a single county in West Virginia. Both crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution. The Big Sandy crayfish was first identified as being in need of federal protection in 1991.
The Big Sandy crayfish is known from Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties in Virginia, and from McDowell and Mingo counties in West Virginia. In Kentucky it is known from Floyd, Johnson, Lawrence, Pike and Martin counties. The Guyandotte River crayfish was known from Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties, West Virginia, but survives only in Wyoming County. In addition to coal mining, the crayfish are threatened by construction of the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway.
The listing proposal means that federal agencies will now have to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before funding or permitting any activity that could harm the animals. When the listing is finalized in 12 months, it will be illegal for any person or corporation, including coal companies, to harm the crayfishes or their habitat. The Service will propose critical habitat to protect the crayfishes in the near future.
Recent scientific studies have concluded that pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining is harmful to fish, crayfish, mussels, amphibians and stream insects in Appalachia. Pollution from mountaintop removal is also associated with increased risk of cancer and birth defects in humans. More than 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia have been degraded by this mechanized form of mining, which employs far fewer people than other forms and perpetuates poverty by causing permanent and irreversible damage to the landscape.
“Coal mining has been destroying human and wildlife communities in Appalachia for more than 100 years,” said Curry. “By protecting streams for these crayfishes, we will also be protecting water quality for people in a region where public health has long been sacrificed to dirty coal.”
Coal field residents and allies are currently promoting the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, or ACHE, a federal bill that would place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits until the federal government has completed and evaluated studies into health disparities in the region.
Crayfish are also known as crawdads, crawfish, mudbugs and freshwater lobsters. They’re considered to be a keystone animal because the holes they dig create habitat used by other species including fish. Crayfish keep streams cleaner by eating decaying plants and animals, and they are eaten, in turn, by fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, making them an important link in the food web. The Big Sandy and Guyandotte River crayfishes are sensitive to water pollution, making them indicator species of water quality.
In 2011 the Center for Biological Diversity entered into a landmark settlement agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service to expedite protection decisions for 757 imperiled species around the country. To date 142 species have gained protection under the agreement, and another 12 have been proposed for protection, including the two crayfishes.
Tierra Curry is the Senior Scientist and a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity where she works to gain protection for endangered species across the country. A large part of her work is trying to safeguard the salamanders, fish, crawdads and mussels in Appalachia. She will be speaking at the Preserving Sacred Appalachia conference in Charleston.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.