Eastern Hellbender comes to Chapman State Park

Times Observer photo by Lorri Drumm Seneca Nation Conservation Fish and Wildlife Officer William Miller holds an Eastern Hellbender during a program all about the amphibian at Chapman State Park on Saturday.

Those who have seen photos or held models of Pennsylvania’s state amphibian might expect one to be rough or scaly.

About a dozen people got the chance to learn all about and even touch the Eastern Hellbender on Saturday and as they did words like soft, slippery and even “velvety” were used to describe them.

Seneca Nation Conservation Officer William Miller presented a program about Hellbenders at Chapman State Park on Saturday. It was the first program focused on the Eastern Hellbender held at the park. Several of the large salamanders were available for touching and holding after the program.

Miller started the program with a history of the Seneca Nation Conservation Department located in Salamanca, N.Y. The Hellbender Head Start program started there in 2010.

The purpose of the program is to combat declining populations of the Eastern Hellbender. Hellbenders are raised at the facility in conditions similar to their natural habitat, according to Miller. Water temperatures vary as they do in nature and they are offered the same diet they would find in a creek or river, he said. “Crayfish are their primary diet in the wild,” he said.

Times Observer photo by Lorri Drumm Eastern Hellbenders were available for viewing and touching during a program Saturday at Chapman State Park. The program was presented by Seneca Nation Conservation Fish and Wildlife Officer William Miller.

The longest certified measurement of an eastern Hellbender in New York state is 29 inches, according to Miller. “I’ve seen photos of some that look bigger but their measurement wasn’t certified,” he said. “I believe there are bigger ones out there.”

It’s not surprising that one might grow beyond 29 inches since they can live up to 30 years.

Hellbenders are also known to frequent the same area. “Females often come back to the same rock to lay their eggs each year,” he said. “We want to make sure we don’t disturb that area.”

Miller told those gathered that “years ago” fisherman would tell stories of catching creatures and they didn’t know what they were. Often the hellbenders were thrown on the bank and left to die.

“Now, they are coming back,” he said. “But we’re looking to the community to let us know if and where they find them.”

Miller cautioned that many people identify mudpuppies as hellbenders. While both are aquatic salamanders, the mudpuppy has flared gills behind its head. The Eastern Hellbender has those gills when it is young but it loses them.

When it comes to restoring the hellbender population, Miller said he is a big believer that “we are our own worst enemy.” He cited a recent incident in Olean, N.Y.

Just last week 330,000 gallons of untreated sewage was discharged into the Allegheny River from the Fourth Street pump station in Olean. The sewage was released following a power outage.

“Hellbenders are water quality indicators,” he said. “We’re located about 14 to 15 miles from where this happened. Downstream.”