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Hellbender

An Ozark hellbender salamander is kept by biologists working on a captive breeding program for the St. Louis Zoo, as seen in a 2004 image. Photo by Teak Phillips of the Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY — Three months after Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor made a giant salamander the state’s official endangered species, the Trump administration is moving to weaken how it applies the federal act that protects endangered species like the Eastern hellbender.

But, officials at the Missouri Department of Conservation and a hellbender expert at the St. Louis Zoo say they believe the potentially weakened federal protections won’t affect how Missouri oversees endangered species.

“In general, MDC’s authority over state endangered species is not impacted by changes to the federal law,” said agency spokesman Joe Jerek.

Under the changes ordered by the Republican president, officials for the first time will be able to publicly attach a cost to saving an animal or plant. Blanket protections for creatures newly listed as threatened will be removed.

The Endangered Species Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, is credited with helping to save the bald eagle, California condor and scores of other animals and plants from extinction.

While the act has been successful in saving species listed as endangered, it also has spawned intense battles between the fate of owls, fish and other creatures and industries and developers.

Jerek acknowledged the new rules are still being studied by the department, which is overseen by a four-member board appointed by the governor.

“The federal changes to the Endangered Species Act are recent and complex, and we will need to review them in detail regarding potential impacts from the federal changes to species found in Missouri,” he said.

Jerek said the agency is committed to ensuring endangered species are protected.

“The Missouri Department of Conservation will continue to live our mission of protecting and managing the fish, forest, and wildlife of the state,” he said.

In Missouri, 38 species are listed as endangered, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The species range from crayfish to a type of skunk and include plants like the eastern and western prairie fringed orchid.

In May, the Missouri Legislature gave widespread support to legislation designating the Eastern hellbender salamander, also known as the snot otter or lasagna lizard, as the state’s official endangered species.

At the time, the sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Jeff Justus, R-Branson, said including the amphibian on the state’s official list of symbols will raise its profile among schoolchildren and others.

The hellbender population has dropped as much as 90% since the 1970s because of river pollution and overharvesting in the 15 states where it lives. It can live up to 30 years and grow to up to 2 feet in length, but its skin is sensitive to water quality issues.

The St. Louis Zoo is operating a breeding program to try to save the species through its work at the Ron Goellner Center for Hellbender Conservation.

Mark Wanner, zoological manager of herpetology and aquatics at the zoo, agreed that Conservation officials would handle regulatory issues affecting endangered species in the state and was confident the zoo’s effort to reintroduce the salamander to rivers across the state would see little impact.

“Regardless of any legislation, our relationship with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and our relationship with Missouri Department of Conservation is very sound and very good. We’ve been working well together for some time and I don’t think the legislation would change anything or any direction that we’re currently moving with hellbender conservation,” Wanner said.

So far this summer, the zoo has released more than 1,300 hellbenders that it reproduced as part of the fight against their demise.

Along with the hellbender, other species listed as endangered by the Missouri Department of Conservation include the peregrine falcon.

According to the MDC, falcons could resume living on natural cliffs in the state if natural open areas are maintained and toxic chemicals are removed from streams and other bodies of water.

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Kurt Erickson is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch