The collaboration of Dr. Michael Freake, associate professor of biology at Lee University, and other partners recently won the nationwide State Wildlife Action Plan Partnership Award.
The partnership includes Lee University, Middle Tennessee State University and the Nashville Zoo. The awards will be presented to recipients on March 6 at the congressional reception in Washington, D.C.
“This year’s competition was really tight with several really great nominations. It truly was a tough decision,” said Mary Pfaffko, Teaming with Wildlife associate.
The collaborative effort, called the Tennessee Hellbender Recovery Partnership, is focused on the eastern hellbender, a rare giant salamander found in area streams. In 2011, THRP received a grant from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which administers the federally funded State Wildlife Grant.
The three elements of the partnership split up responsibilities. Freake coordinates field surveys in East Tennessee, handles all genetic analyses and has worked with Stephen Spear of the Orianne Society to develop a new survey technique of testing river water samples for the presence of hellbender DNA.
“For me, working on hellbenders is all about creating and sustaining partnerships with other experts in the field because there are so many challenges to studying and managing our declining populations of hellbenders,” Freake said. “It’s definitely not a one-person show, and that is why we are all so delighted to receive this award.”
He was assisted with fieldwork, funding and publicity by Rick Jackson and David Hedrick of the Chattanooga Zoo and Jim Herrig of the USDA Forest Service.
“The reasons we care about hellbenders is their uniqueness,” Freake said. “Since they are completely aquatic and need clean, cool streams, they are a valuable indicator of water quality. If they disappear from our rivers, it is a clear message that all is not well. Our concern is that this may be the last generation of Tennessee residents that will have hellbenders in the wild.”
The partnership is recognized for their efforts in the conservation of hellbenders and gaining media attention for State Wildlife Grants.