A salamander being measured. It is an endangered species.

Better Water Management of Critical Habitat for Endangered Species

In the United States, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) defines endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range… “ and critical habitat as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species … on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection.”

However, when the Endangered Species Act talks about conservation it refers to instruments such as: “research, census, law enforcement, habitat acquisition and maintenance, propagation, live trapping, and transplantation …” Those instruments may have been the best available at the time but times have changed.

In many cases the underlying cause of species extinction is progressive environmental degradation.

Hence, root cause analysis leads to the conclusion that it is not the species that needs to be aggressively managed; it is habitat quantity and quality that needs to be managed in order for the species to survive and thrive.

Too often, there have been irredeemable loss of habitat, raising the significance of any and all habitat remnants. Within these refugia, maintaining, restoring, and enhancing the quality of these critical habitats becomes of paramount importance.

It is unfortunately true that loss of habitat quantity and quality for aquatic species is very frequently associated with water over-use, misuse, or abuse. Sedimentation, eutrophication, thermal pollution, acidification, salinization, pesticides, and toxins are often caused by human activities and contribute to loss and/or degradation of habitat, leading to loss of species diversity.

Fortunately, most of these impacts are not purposeful. The majority of harm is a result of unintended consequences of legitimate, and mainly beneficial, human activities. Unintended, unwanted, and unexpected consequences are inevitable when people are ill-informed about the repercussions of their actions.

The question is: Why are so many people ill-informed?

In some cases it is simply for lack of water monitoring. However, in some cases it is because water monitoring activities are ineffective in their effect on policy instruments (e.g. regulations, standards, enforcement) or social instruments (e.g. awareness, empowerment, participation, partnerships) that can result in beneficial improvements in human activities.

Turning data into actionable information is achievable.

Join us for a webinar on one case-study of the benefits of actionable water information for the effective management of endangered species

Because of their conservation importance, biologists often keep tabs on hellbenders. Biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, N.C. Division of Water Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, North Carolina Zoo, Appalachian State University, and Virginia Zoo recently surveyed hellbenders in a handful of mountain streams. Once the biologists captured a hellbender, they measured and weighed it; determined its sex; swabbed its skin to test for chytrid fungus which is responsible for massive, widespread amphibians deaths; tagged it with a Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT, tag, providing the animal with a unique identifier – just like micro-chipping your pet; and finally took a small clip of tail tissue to track genetics. At up to two and a half feet in length, Eastern hellbenders can be an impressive sight. These aquatic salamanders are found in Appalachian streams, and have declined to the point that they’ve been considered for addition to the federal endangered species list. Despite their size, they’re harmless to people, and in fact help by serving as indicator species – the health of hellbender populations is an indicator of stream health.

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