David Frank Dempsey
Thursday, October 10, 2013
Few people today have seen one and most of us never will, but the Ozark Hellbender belongs here and nowhere else on Earth. The range of this subspecies of the eastern Hellbender is the White River and Spring River areas of northwest Arkansas and southwestern Missouri. The largest salamander in North America (cryptobranchus alleganiensis bishop) was listed as an endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in late 2011.
Although its range is small and population declining rapidly, the endangered species listing came without provision for establishing critical habitat for the Ozark Hellbender. These creatures, growing up to two feet long, are known to live in waters that will be traversed by SWEPCO’s proposed 345 kiloVolt transmission line, routes 33 and 109, about a mile upstream of Beaver, Ark.
Hellbender decline is associated with degraded water quality, increased sedimentation, collection for the pet trade, habitat loss and pollution. The building of SWEPCO’s giant transmission line across the White River/Table Rock Lake with its associated land clearing, boring and herbicide spraying will add yet more stress to a species that is fighting extinction.
Roger Shoffit has fished this stretch of water for 34 years and has accidently caught three of these giant amphibians while trot lining for catfish. He released them immediately. After catching the first one he did research to identify the animal he had never seen before. He can readily name the wildlife and most of the plants in the Ozarks, but after identifying the strange-looking beast he thought little else about them until the endangered species listing and, later, the news of SWEPCO’s transmission line plans.
Two weeks ago Shoffit traveled by boat to see the areas where he had caught the hellbenders. He found the sites from memory and marked them with latitude and longitude from a GPS. The sites were all directly downstream of the planned transmission line crossing: one was about a mile-and-a-half downstream, near the park at Beaver; the most distant site was in the mouth of Leatherwood Creek in Holiday Island.
During the boat trip, Shoffit watched ospreys that are seen year-round in the area. The first was seen was leaving its perch from a tree above plastic tape marking the transmission line crossing route over the river. Shoffit saw two and possibly three more of the birds within two miles of the planned crossing point.
Ospreys are not the only great birds that will be affected by the power line if it crosses the water near Beaver. Less than a mile downstream from the crossing, in White River tributary Butler Creek, Great Blue herons raise their chicks each year in huge nests in a stand of tall sycamore trees. In the spring the hoarse cries of adults and their chicks begging to be fed can be heard for hundreds of yards from the well-established rookery.
Bald eagles winter in the area and can sometimes be seen perched in trees along the water. Fishermen, kayakers and other boaters who spend a lot of time on the water near Beaver eventually catch sight of an eagle or ospey circling above the river diving to snatch a shallow-swimming fish.
All of these things happen within sight of where SWEPCO wants to cross the White River/Table Rock Lake body of water. Ospreys, bald eagles and great blue herons, unlike the Ozark hellbender, are not on the endangered species list, but their habitats are here.
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