Tag Archives: eastern hellbender

The Great Hill People of the Beautiful River and Their Conservation Efforts

This story is a part of the Native American Blog Series in observance of National Native American Heritage.

The Seneca Nation of Indians are the “Keepers of the Western Door” and are called the “Great Hill People” or “O-non-dowa-gah” in their own language. The Seneca people are culturally attached to their ancestral lands, and call the Allegheny River the “Ohi’yo” which translates into “beautiful river”. The Ohi’yo or Allegheny River joins the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River, which then the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River. To many Seneca Native Americans, the Allegheny River and its connections are simply called Ohi’yo  River no matter what region it is in.

seneca territory

Currently, the Seneca Nation of Indians holds 53,884 acres of Tribal lands within two territories: the Allegany and the Cattaraugus, as well as the Oil Springs Reservation which is 640 acres in the state of New York.  Photo Credit: eSpatially New York, 2015

The Seneca Nation of Indians has a robust wildlife program and is undertaking many projects to protect and restore fish and wildlife cultural important to their people.  In 2015, the Seneca Nation of Indians were awarded Federal funding for a project titled “Conservation Management” through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tribal Wildlife Grant (TWG) program. The goal of the project is to increase stream and shoreline restoration within the Cattaraugus Creek, to benefit sacred fish species including the brook trout and steelhead fish. According to Seneca oral histories, the Great Spirit had caught and admired the beauty of the brook trout. The Great Spirit’s touch turned the black ebony color of the trout into silvery spots and halos. Since the brook trout had been handled by the Great Spirit and spared for its beauty to live on, the Seneca Nation of Indians do not eat brook trout, but hold it as sacred in the highest regard of fish (Indian Legend received by Larry Becelia).

Additionally, a freshwater hatchery in Cattaraugus Territory, which will also serve as an educational center for the community, is being created under management of Greg Lay, Fish and Wildlife Department for the Seneca Indian Nation. The hatchery will be used for Eastern brook trout. The Seneca Nation provides power to both facilities using solar panels and other sustainable methods.

Another project the Seneca Nation of Indians is working on is to stabilize the walleye population, which is a fish that is both a culturally significant and a subsistence food for the Seneca Nation of Indians, through establishment of a fish rearing facility in the Allegany territory. The rearing facility is managed by Shane Titus, the Fishery’s Manager and and Larry Becelia, the Conservation Manager of Seneca Nation of Indians Fish and Wildlife Department. The highland Strain of Walleye (adult male and females) are caught from the Allegany Reservoir during spawning season using an electroshocking boat. After the reproductive materials have been collected by the caught adults, they are released further up the Allegany River. This location is chosen in hopes that mature walleye will stay up river and spawn in the future to increase the upstream population. When the walleye fry hatch in the rearing facility, they are released where the Allegany reservoir and Allegany River meet.


Larry Becelia, Conservation Manager  of the Seneca Nation Fish and Wildlife Department holding a walleye.

The Seneca Nation Fish and Wildlife Department has also established a research program, in which walleye females that were caught, held, and released from the facility are tagged with URL links, identification numbers, and QR codes. This system is used in the hopes that future anglers can log the individual fish into the system and see where it has traveled on the map. One example of this form of “citizen science” was encountered when a fisherman caught a walleye female all the way in Pennsylvania! The Seneca Nation of Indians have also built a stocking pond near the facility for catch and release fishing of walleye, to ensure that traditional fishing activities are available for the Tribal community.



Shane and Larry also organize a youth program in the summer to create artificial habitat for fish. Eleven- to sixteen-year olds use recycled vinyl siding, quick cement, and pipes to create a resting place for spawning fish. Using grant funds, the Seneca Nation of Indians have also been able to order large boulders to be placed into the freshwater system to provide resting pools for fish. Photo Credit: Zintkala Eiring

In addition, the Seneca Nation of Indians is in partnership with Cornell University and the State of New York to research the chytrid disease in the eastern hellbender, a protected species of large salamander. Several individuals with the disease were unable to be cured, and thus, are unable to be released back into their natural system. Currently, the SNI resource managers, Shane and Titus, continue to take care of a handful of eastern hellbenders. Fortunately, several hellbenders without the chytrid disease were able to be released into their natural environment in the summer of 2017.

The O-non-dawa-gah or Seneca people have been conserving their lands for thousands of years. Through the tribal wildlife grants program, they continue to demonstrate their ancestral ties to the Ohi’yo River and its wildlife inhabitants, as well as the protection of species through their hatchery, stream-bank restoration projects, and species recovery programs. Tribal environmental managers pass on their traditional ecological knowledge and conservation skillset to Seneca youth each summer, so generations can continue O-non-dawa-gah traditions into the future.

The Seneca Indian Nation’s conservation management projects were made possible by the dedication and efforts of the Seneca Nation of Indians, other partnerships, and the Tribal Wildlife Grants program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tribal wildlife grants are funded through an annual appropriation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These grants have awarded more than $77 million to Tribes since 2003, which provide support for approximately 444 conservation projects throughout Indian Country. For more information about tribal wildlife grants please visit https://www.fws.gov/northeast/nativeamerican/index.html

Devil dog, mud devil, hellbender … Huh?

Shane titus

Today you’re hearing from Shane Titus, the fisheries manager for the Seneca Nation of Indians in Salamanca, New York.

Seven years ago, I had never even heard of an eastern hellbender, but now I spend a good bit of my time with them at our Seneca Nation of Indians rearing facility.

Don’t let the name fool you. While they are intriguing and bizarre, these are docile aquatic salamanders that live in freshwater rivers and streams within the eastern U.S. They’re pretty rare and are a species of special concern in New York State.

These remarkable salamanders have been around for over 65 million years, but they’ve been decreasing through the years due to loss of habitat, poor water quality, predation and the introduction of invasive prey species (like the rusty crayfish). Being amphibians, poor water quality affects the hellbenders extremities and skin, similar to how it affects frogs. Healthy hellbenders in a watershed are an indication of good water quality. Unhealthy and low populations can be an indication of a serious water quality issue to the public, who use the water resources for domestic consumption.

DID YOU KNOW?An eastern hellbender. Credit: Lori Pruitt/USFWS
Hellbenders spend their entire lifespan in the water, receiving oxygen through capillaries located in their skin folds (running along the sides of their bodies, between the front and back legs). These amazing creatures ambush predators, feeding mainly on crawfish and small minnows. Hellbenders can grow to be 29 inches (with rumors of larger ones being seen or caught by anglers).

Eastern hellbenders can be found in the Allegany and Susquehanna river systems in New York, and the largest populations are located in the Allegany River watershed on the Territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI). Research by the SNI Fish & Wildlife Department, New York State Department of Conservation and the Buffalo Zoo showed that the Allegany populations had decreased by 70 percent since the 1970s, and juveniles were all but nonexistent.

We were greatly concerned. Without juveniles to replace mature hellbenders (after their life cycles ended), there would be no natural reproduction within our river system. So the SNI tribal council provided funding to construct a hellbender rearing facility that would collect eggs, raise the larvae to juveniles and release them into the Allegany River.

The current range of the eastern hellbender. Map from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The current range of the eastern hellbender. Map from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

We’ve learned a lot since it opened in 2010:

  • The main difficulty to raising hellbenders is maintaining the water quality, which we do with a battery of water filters and air pumps. We want to mimic natural conditions as much as possible.
  • If you know where the hellbenders are, it’s not too difficult to collect eggs (don’t try this at home). They lay them on the underside of flat rocks. We make sure to be careful in turning rocks and leave the area in the condition we found it.
  • Hellbender larvae are very delicate, and we have lost a number of them at this stage. Rather than keeping them together, we’ve starting separating the young to better monitor them.
  • We’ve been looking for good places for our first release of hellbenders, and we have plans to release a group this year downstream of Salamanca. We’ll monitor them daily with radio telemetry tags and also with scuba diving visits.

Thanks to the efforts of the SNI Fish & Wildlife Department, the eastern hellbender now has a guardian to help insure that this species will always have a place within our ecosystem.

The hellbender facility is located at 3689 Center Rd Salamanca, NY, 14779 and is open to the public for viewing; call us (716) 945-6421to set up a tour or for any questions.

Read a related article from The Buffalo News or check out this video from the Seneca Nation of Indians.