Thursday, July 17, 2014

Are Hellbenders actually Canaries?

Take a good look at this Hellbender. You might not get a chance to see one for real in the wild.
Photo by USFWSmidwest

I read a couple of disturbing stories last Friday about the disappearance of the Hellbender, North America's largest salamander, whose populations are crashing in the wild.

What's causing the Hellbender decline? Scientists don't know for sure, but a likely culprit seems to be declining water quality. Since salamanders breathe through their skin and live in creeks and streams, they could be the canary in the coal mine indicating problems with our water supply.

So how can we help save the Hellbender? The Christian Science Monitor says "Researchers are urging landowners to plant trees and grasses along rivers to improve the water quality."

So that does mean you're off the hook if you don't live alongside a body of water? I doubt it. One way or another, much of the water that runs off our lawns and hardscapes during a storm probably ends up in a river, creek, stream, lake or ocean (unless it goes directly into a water treatment facility).

If all or most of the land on your property consists of short lawn and hard spaces that can't absorb water, you're going to have a lot of untreated runoff. If you spray herbicides (weed killers) or pesticides or fertilizers on your lawn, some portion of those treatments may wash off in a heavy rain and make their way into bodies of water.

So how can homeowners help?

1. Reduce the lawn and add more ornamental grasses, perennials, trees and shrubs that will slow down and absorb runoff during heavy rains, giving bacteria and other soil organisms a chance to sequester and clean the water. (These plantings can of course offer many other wildlife benefits - flowers for bees and butterflies, nectar for hummingbirds, berries for birds - while reducing the acreage we need to cut with polluting mowers.)

2. Stop spraying and treating the lawn with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. I'm not guilt-free here. I don't spray any pesticides or fungicides on my lawn, but living in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of neighborhood, there's a mandate to keep the lawn green and weed-free. But I'm trying to reduce the size of the lawn, because there's no mandate about what sorts of trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses and perennials I plant -- and if I plant those thickly enough, they'll do a pretty good job of suppressing weeds on their own without any spraying. (At least that's been my experience so far in the landscape beds I've already installed.)

Together, perhaps we can save the Hellbender. And ultimately, if the water is cleaner, we'll help ourselves too.