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USDA awards $2.7M to help farmers make cleaner streams for endangered hellbender salamanders

An adult Eastern hellbender salamander. It's brown with wrinkly skin on the side of it's body. Hellbenders grow an average of 12-15 inches long.
The Williams Lab
Purdue University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
An adult Eastern hellbender salamander.

The federal government will award $2.7 million to a new project to help farmers improve streams for hellbenders in Indiana.

The hellbender is the largest salamander in the U.S., known for the wrinkly skin on its sides. Because it gets oxygen to breathe directly from the water, it’s very sensitive to pollution like runoff from farm fields.

The Farmers Helping Hellbenders project will help fund conservation practices that help farmers keep that soil in place — like cover crops and planting buffers along streams.

Rod Williams is a herpetology professor in Purdue’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and is heading up the project.

“We know in talking with our colleagues in the Natural Resource Conservation Service in the southern part of the state — where hellbenders occur — that farmers are eager to implement conservation practices on their farm," he said.

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Now with the funding, Williams said farmers will hopefully have the money to pay for things like cover crop seed. And that could benefit farmers too — by saving money on fertilizer, reducing weeds and keeping the soil moist.

“So what this has done is really fill — in my opinion and in the opinion of all of our partners — a really critical conservation piece which is minimizing sedimentation that's going into the river while maximizing those attributes of the land that benefit farmers and their livelihoods," Williams said.

The initiative will focus on counties in the Blue River watershed — Crawford, Floyd, Harrison and Washington counties.

Mesker Park Zoo in Evansville was the first to breed the Eastern hellbender naturally last year.

Williams said the one viable offspring from that clutch is doing well and they hope to see another successful breeding event at the zoo this fall.

Contact Rebecca at or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.