By Zach Howard
BRATTLEBORO, Vt (Reuters) - Vermont officials decided on Friday against adding the mudpuppy salamander to the state's endangered species list, capping a lengthy debate over the best legal fate for the cute but slimy amphibian.
The question of whether to protect the permanently aquatic salamander native to the Lake Champlain region arose after the creatures became collateral damage in the area's ongoing population control of parasitic sea lampreys.
Previously, Vermont had designated the mudpuppy, or necturus maculosus, as "a species of greatest conservation need."
As recently as July, two Vermont advisory bodies, the Endangered Species Committee and the Scientific Advisory Group, urged listing the animal as officially threatened, which would legally protect it from being harassed, threatened or killed.
"Although I greatly respect the work that is done by the ESC and SAG, in this instance I do not find sufficient evidence to list the mudpuppy as a threatened species under Vermont's Endangered Species Act," said Vermont Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz.
"However, because we support the precautionary principal we will be continuing to take steps to limit negative impacts on this species and to continue to gather data to help us make a decision about whether this species needs additional protection," she said.
Often called waterdogs for the bark-like noises they are said to emit, mudpuppies inhabit lakes, rivers and streams, typically at significant underwater depths.
The brownish-gray spotted amphibian does not become terrestrial but, instead, relies on gills behind its head to breathe under water, as fish do. It matures in four to six years, can reach 11 to 16 inches long by adulthood and lives up to 20 years.
Vermont, New York, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operate the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative program in which workers have been killing sea lampreys by applying a pesticide called TFM to rivers and deltas where they spawn.
Officials have reported success with reducing the lamprey population, leading to a drop in the number of lake trout and salmon distressed by the parasites, and area fishermen largely have welcomed the effort.
But many Vermonters are concerned about how much the pesticide, which targets young lampreys, can damage other species. Biologists admit there are related mortalities for mudpuppies and some fish, like log perch, although they say these species aren't getting eradicated.
Jim Andrews, head of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Project, said the state made the wrong decision and the vulnerable mudpuppy will suffer.
"The species needs the attention of the threatened status," Andrews said.
Mudpuppies found in eastern Vermont, along the Connecticut River, are genetically unique to the native variety and likely were introduced from outside of the Northeast, experts say.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)