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With a face perhaps only a mom (or avid herper) could love, and facing declining population numbers, the Eastern Hellbender (Cryptobranchus a. alleganiensis) could use some good news.

According to Dr. Stephen Spear, Assistant Conservation Scientist with The Orianne Society and a visiting scientist at the University of Idaho, some very good news arrived this January when the Teaming With Wildlife Coalition (TWW) presented the State Wildlife Action Plan Partnership Award to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) & the Tennessee Hellbender Recovery Partnership (THRP) for working together to recover populations of the Eastern Hellbender, a candidate species for federal listing. The TWW’s State Wildlife Action Plan Award recognizes both a state fish and wildlife agency and a partner agency or organization for their outstanding collaboration in the implementation or revision of the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP).

TWW, comprised of more than 6,300 State fish & wildlife agencies, wildlife biologists, hunters, anglers, birdwatchers, hikers, nature-based businesses, and other conservationists, is the largest and most diverse coalition ever assembled in support of wildlife conservation funding. The TWW coalition is the leading advocate for the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants (SWG) program and the implementation of the SWAPs, which are aimed at preventing wildlife from becoming endangered.

The Tennessee Hellbender Recovery Partnership consists of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, The Orianne Society, Nashville Zoo, Middle Tennessee State University, Lee University, and The Laboratory for Ecological, Evolutionary, and Conservation Genetics (LEECG) at the University of Idaho.

The partnership put the grant funding to use in truly innovative ways! They developed a new protocol which employed already-established environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling to detect the presence of Eastern Hellbenders—saving a great deal of money, labor, and time—as well as new sampling protocols for better understanding the impact of ranaviruses and chytrid (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis).

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More importantly, eDNA is proving itself a more efficient surveying method of identifying where Hellbenders live, and may be useful for detecting reproducing populations. With this project, Dr. Spear furthered his pivotal work investigating the response of Hellbender populations to recent fragmentation due to hydrologic alteration and loss of forest cover.

The work with eDNA is only part of the THRP. The TWRA & THRP also successfully produced the first captive-bred Eastern Hellbenders, which will be released into the wild. The partnership also garnered a great deal of media attention, emphasizing the pivotal role of SWGs in wildlife conservation, and was even highlighted in the popular science journal Scientific American.

This group continues to contribute to welcome advances in Hellbender conservation work both within and outside the Tennessee partnership. We at The Orianne Society applaud collaborative efforts such this, and anticipate continued successes in forward-looking research, as eDNA documentation may well begin to show tangible progress towards sampling of endangered and imperiled amphibians and reptiles, many of which The Orianne Society works daily to protect and conserve.

Dr. Steve Spear, along with other members of the THRP, will attend the Celebrating America’s Wildlife Congressional Reception in Washington, D.C. to accept the State Wildlife Action Plan Partnership Award on March 6, 2013.

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