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Help keep our waters clean for hellbenders, plant a tree

April 28, 2017
Stream with bank erosion.

It’s Arbor Day again, and it’s time to celebrate the importance of trees. The fact that trees are essential to both humans and wildlife is well-established. However, most people think of trees in the context of oxygen production, wood products, and habitat for wildlife such as squirrels and birds. I’d like to focus on one of the less well-known services that trees provide, keeping water clean. This service not only benefits people but also aquatic wildlife like the Hellbender salamander.

The Hellbender salamander is North America’s largest salamander. It is fully aquatic, living its entire life in rivers and streams throughout the midwest and southeast. Hellbenders require cool, clean rivers and streams with rocky substrates to thrive and reproduce. Unfortunately, over the past few decades the species has declined or disappeared from many of these areas. There are several causes that scientists suspect, but the loss of trees due to increases in agriculture and urban/suburban areas is at the top of the list.

Trees do a number of things to keep our water clean. The forest canopy intercepts rainfall and slows the rate at which water enters the ground. This helps reduce flooding. Trees provide shade to rivers and streams thus keeping them cool and allowing for higher levels of dissolved oxygen. Trees also filter nutrients and chemicals from runoff, preventing them from entering streams. One of the most important functions that trees provide is stabilizing our riverbanks and hillsides and preventing sediment from entering the stream and changing our rocky river bottoms to mud bottoms. These functions are especially important in our modern landscape, where agriculture and hard surfaces dominate many areas.

All of these functions help to create a clean environment for Hellbenders and other aquatic wildlife to live. Without trees, it is likely that our rivers and streams would be too dirty for many species to survive. If you are looking for a way to help the Hellbender, then please consider planting a tree this Arbor Day. Several Arbor Day celebrations for 2017 will be held on Saturday, April 29th. Check out activities around your area: Purdue Extension County Offices, Indiana Department of Natural Resources or Tippecanoe Soil & Water Conservation District.

For more ways you can help, please visit Help the Hellbender.org.

Resources:
Rainscaping, Purdue Extension
How Anglers and Paddlers Can Help the Hellbender, The Education Store-Purdue Extension resource center
Hellbender ID, The Education Store
Improving Water Quality by Protecting Sinkholes on Your Property, The Education Store
Improving Water Quality at Your Livestock Operation video, The Education Store
Healthy Water, Happy Home – Lesson Plan, The Education Store
Tree Planting Part 1: Choosing a Tree video, The Education Store
Tree Planting Part 2: Planting Your Tree video, The Education Store
Tree Installation: Process and Practices, The Education Store

Nick Burgmeier, Research Biologist and Extension Wildlife Specialist
Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources

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