By Eric Sitton
The look on my face must have registered the shock I felt as the odd-looking beast swam toward my fishing lure only a few feet away. I jumped back, trying to get away from what looked like a creature from a movie. The black eyes on the brown, slimy head peered at me from behind the rock I had been standing on. With one quick thrust of its tail the monster turned and disappeared into the water as suddenly as it had first appeared. I had just encountered the hellbender. This happened when I was young and fishing in the South Mills River.
The hellbender is the largest salamander in the Americas, growing to over two feet in length. Their flattened heads, long bodies and short legs make them a sight to see. Their unusual appearance has given them the names “devil dog,” “water dog,” and “Allegheny alligator.” Despite the fierce sounding names and their remarkable appearance, however, these salamanders are docile.
The eastern hellbender is nocturnal and lives under rocks during the day. They live in very clean, fast-moving streams and rivers. The hellbender is a live indicator of stream health. Construction near rivers, which places sediment in the water, is detrimental to the river and the hellbender. These salamanders breathe through their skin and need the moving water to provide them with oxygen. Hellbenders tend to stay away from areas of rivers that have muddy bottoms, prefering shallow water with rocky bottoms where they can hunt and nest. When dams are placed on rivers, the oxygen level can drop, making survival difficult.
Agriculture often receives poor reviews for its effects on water quality. However, Jason Davis at North River Farms has worked hard for more than 20 years to establish best practices for agriculture and the environment. New standards have established riparian boundaries that protect both farmland and water.
North River Farms has partnered with area universities and groups including Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to study the effects from years past on the hellbender population. Scientists are actively investigating hellbenders in the Mills River area. The river itself is considered prime habitat which must be protected at all costs. The initial excitement of the scientists upon discovering hellbenders living here is proof positive that sensitive wildlife can thrive next door to agriculture.
To learn more about agriculture, farm tours and events at North River Farms, visit NorthRiverFarms.co or call 828.890.5316.