- Associated Press - Friday, September 9, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - When construction crews begin tearing down Dawt Mill dam on the North Fork River later this month, they’ll be working under the watchful eye of Trisha Crabill.

Crabill, a U.S Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, will be on the scene looking for any critically endangered Ozark hellbender salamanders that the big tracked vehicles might dislodge when they rip apart the dam to eliminate a safety hazard to swimmers and paddlers.

More than half of the dam will be removed following the death of a Springfield teenager who became trapped in a hole in the dam and drowned while trying to help a friend who was struggling in the fast-moving water. Dawt Mill owns the dam and has received a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to demolish part of the structure.

The Springfield News-Leader (https://sgfnow.co/2clcNwv ) reports that the center of the dam collapsed during floods in 2013, and the resulting gap is where 13-year-old Chloe Butcher became trapped and drowned on June 25.

The presence of Ozark hellbenders complicates the deconstruction of the dam. The Corps permit requires construction crews to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to minimize impacts to hellbenders remaining in and around the dam.

Tracked excavators, for example, are required to use the same path through the river to reach the dam, both to reduce the chance of squashing hellbenders and to limit damage to the stream bed. The contractor also has to prevent silt that has collected upstream of the dam from washing downstream during the project.

“We did an initial survey yesterday (Wednesday) at the dam and captured two hellbenders, which were sent to the St. Louis Zoo’s captive breeding program,” Crabill said. “In previous surveys, hellbenders have been observed living in the crevices of the dam.”

If more hellbenders are found, that won’t block the project, Crabill said. But the work could be halted briefly while the hellbenders are captured, she said.

“We’ll be there to offer advice to minimize the risks to this endangered species,” Crabill said. “But we wouldn’t stop the project. We don’t get in the way of public safety.”

Ozark hellbenders were listed as an endangered species in 2011, when surveys showed fewer than 600 remained in the wild in Missouri. Crabill said recent research puts the hellbender population in Missouri at about 1,500 - a number that leaves the foot-and-a-half-long creatures at high risk for extinction.

Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in North America.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has been working with the St Louis Zoo to capture wild hellbenders and breed them in hopes of returning them to the wild and bolster their chances of repopulating the rivers. According to the zoo, hellbender populations in Missouri and Arkansas saw a sudden decline of 70 percent in recent years for reasons that are still being researched.

Crabill said silt in the rivers and movement of gravel during increasingly frequent major floods are known threats to hellbenders.

“There may be just a few individuals left in the dam,” she said. “In previous surveys we found pockets in the dam where they were living, but those pockets now have been silted in. Hellbenders also live beneath large, flat rocks in the rivers. During one project we radio tracked a number of hellbenders. One hellbender was discovered entombed under its rock under a foot of gravel that had washed in from one of the flood events.”

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Information from: Springfield News-Leader, https://www.news-leader.com

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