DNR wants to hear from those who find a hellbender or mud puppy

ROMNEY, W.Va. — Most folks in West Virginia have never had an encounter with a hellbender or a mud puppy. However, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources believes those interactions are on the rise, to the point they believe anglers could be a big help in determining the range and distribution of these unusual creatures.

“This project stemmed from looking at social media sites of West Virginia fishing and looking at pictures where anglers were catching hellbenders and mud puppies and wondering what they were. We started to see people were recording them in areas where we did not have records for those animals.,” said Kevin Oxenrider of the DNR.

The agency has now officially put together a Citizens Science Survey to help get a better handle on where these critters are living. According to Oxenrider, it’s an untapped resource and will help with future decisions about those animals.

Both are just large salamanders and pose no threat of harm to people or to sportfish. But they are rather unusual to see and can set off alarms for those who are unfamiliar. Oxenrider, in a recent interview for West Virginia Outdoors refused to call them “ugly”, but did admit they might be off putting at first.

“I personally love them,” he laughed. “But I can see where they can be a little intimidating or daunting when you first see them. The live on the bottom of these bodies of water and they often feed on things anglers use for bait like crayfish, or worms, or small minnows,”

The DNR is aware of their presence in bodies of water in the western part of the state like the Ohio River, but they noticed in the social media posts, anglers are catching the creatures further up into the tributaries than anybody ever knew.

“We know they’re in some of the larger streams like the Ohio River, but we’re starting to learn they are in some of the smaller tributaries into those larger streams. So getting that kind of information is great and we can use it to better understand how they are distributed around the state. But if you’re catching them on those larger systems like the Ohio, we want to know about that as well,” he said.

The agency is asking anglers to carefully remove the hook from the mud puppy or hellbender, if possible measure it and get a picture, then release it back into the water. Later, when you have access to the internet, you’re asked to upload the photo and the pertinent information about the catch and where and when you caught it to a special area of the DNR’s website.

Oxenrider said the project is also aimed at clearing up myths and misconceptions about the two critters.

“There’s a huge misconception they are venomous or poisonous, which they are not and also that they hurt or impact local sportfish populations, which they do not. They primarily prey on crayfish or aquatic insects,” he said.

The survey is patterned after great success the agency had with the box turtle survey from several years back.

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