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Before a N.C. dam is removed, biologists search for America’s largest salamander

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Thousands of derelict dams used to power Appalachian mill towns. Now, they're coming down. Their demolition restores the flow of rivers and streams, but that can threaten aquatic life, including America's largest amphibian. Zachary Turner, with member station WFAE, joined a recent search for the eastern hellbender.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

ZACHARY TURNER, BYLINE: Ben Dalton zips up his wet suit...

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPERING)

TURNER: ...And dives into the Watauga River. He's a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

BEN DALTON: I am about to snorkel for some hellbenders on sort of a search and rescue operation.

TURNER: Eastern hellbenders are giant salamanders, usually about a foot and a half long.

DALTON: They have that big mouth that opens real wide, pulls the water in, sucks the crayfish in with the water, and they just clamp down and just crush, crush, crush.

TURNER: Don't let the big mouths scare you. Hellbenders are docile creatures that prefer the safety of their dens. The hellbenders Dalton's searching for could live more than 30 years in the river - if he can get them out of the way of the upcoming dam demolition. Hellbenders are a protected species under North Carolina law.

DALTON: It's either this or they're going to get washed away or buried.

TURNER: Environmental groups MountainTrue and American Rivers are leading the dam removal and hellbender relocation. When the dam comes down, the Watauga River will flow freely once again and return to its natural state. Andy Hill is the Watauga Riverkeeper.

ANDY HILL: You know, this dam, like all dams, is a barrier to aquatic connectivity. So fish, mussels, you know, hellbenders - they can't make it through this dam.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

TURNER: Hill joins Dalton on the bank, and the pair submerges.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

TURNER: It's not long before they find a hellbender under a large rock - about four feet underwater.

DALTON: It's just far enough down - you could see the entrance is on that side. Looks like a small adult.

TURNER: Five students and staff from Appalachian State University surround the slab with crowbar-like tools to lift the rock.

DALTON: I'll give you a thumbs up. You all lift.

TURNER: Dalton disappears under the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

TURNER: He signals, and the team lifts up the slab.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hell yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Whoa.

TURNER: Mission success.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Net, net, net, net. Net up. There it is.

TURNER: Dalton grabs the hellbender from under the rock. He places the amphibian in a mesh bag. He's a mature male, probably 7 to 12 years old. They take his measurements then insert a tracker...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACKER INSERTER CLICKING)

TURNER: ...So they can monitor him during the course of his life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yep. Picking it up. Nice.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Very good.

TURNER: This hellbender will join other rescued salamanders miles downstream, far from the dam removal. Perhaps, one day, his offspring will return to his old slab.

For NPR News, I'm Zachary Turner at the Watauga River. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Zachary Turner