We are all abuzz at the hatchery.

We are all abuzz at the hatchery. If all goes as planned, we will be propagating a new endangered species, the hellbender, in the near future. The entire staff visited the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery in Branson on Friday to see their setup as one of only two producers of hellbenders in the world, the other being St. Louis Zoo. Hellbenders are the largest salamander in North America and are harmless aquatic creatures that are an important part of the Ozark stream ecosystem. In Missouri, Arkansas and throughout their geographic range, hellbenders are suffering from an alarming population decline and need help if they are to survive.

Hellbenders are classified as amphibians, a group of animals that includes toads and frogs. Adults range in length from 11 to more than 20 inches. They have a wide, flat head with tiny eyes and a broad and vertically compressed tail. Their body and legs are covered with prominent folds of grayish and yellowish browns and sometimes reddish browns. In my opinion, they are so ugly that they are cute. The hellbenders in North America are the eastern hellbenders, ranging from southern New York State south to northern Georgia and west to Missouri. The Ozark hellbender, a subspecies of the eastern, is found only in south central Missouri and in a few rivers in extreme north central Arkansas. Missouri is the only state that has both types of hellbenders.

Hellbenders cannot live out of water but seldom swim; instead they walk slowly along the stream bottom. Most of their time is spent hiding under large, flat rocks and coming out at night to search for food. They are rarely seen. They are known to eat a variety of aquatic prey, such as small fish, aquatic insects and crayfish and typically live 30 to 35 years.

Hellbenders have been in North America for more than 6 million years and if there is something in the water that is causing their decline, it can affect us as well. Hellbenders need to be protected and their survival needs to be ensured because they are a part of the overall health of the natural, aquatic environment. As a protected species in Missouri and Arkansas, they are not allowed to be taken from the wild for any reason. You can help their recovery by reporting sightings to Jeff Briggler, herpetologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, at (573) 522-4115, ext. 3201. The Neosho National Fish Hatchery is hoping to help turn the tide for these long-lived, unusual amphibians by becoming the third producer of hellbenders in the world.

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Our Friday cookbook signing by artist Jeff Jones was a huge success. A big thank you to Jeff and all who participated as well as Larry and Linda James who compiled and produced this wonderful treasure of old photos of the hatchery and grand recipes.

Hatchery staff rallied their Christmas spirit by float in the Neosho Christmas Parade Saturday. Local visitor of the week is C.A. Lucas for making me laugh out loud several times. Long distance visitors of the week are Bo and Andy Ferguson from Coolidge, Ariz.