Wildlife conservation tends to save charismatic species. That may be about to change.

BINGHAMTON, New York — Near a tributary of the Susquehanna River, biologist Michelle Herman carefully samples a species of rare giant salamander called the Eastern Hellmaster for invasive fungi.

“The first cracked me up when I rubbed my chin. It was very fiery,” she says. Herman is part of a small group attempting to repopulate the Hellbenders in an area where their numbers have dwindled sharply.

“They don’t have a lot of defenders, so I’m happy to be a hell defender,” says Herman, who works for The Wetland Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization.

The bald eagles have come back from the edge of the abyss. The number of grizzly bears is rebounding. But conservation is expensive, and thousands of less charismatic species are competing for scarce resources in the United States, with as many as a million threatened with extinction worldwide, according to the United Nations.

According to America’s Fish and Wildlife Alliance.

/ Laura Benshoff/NPR

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Laura Benshoff/NPR

The masters of hell live under giant boulders in the creek bed. Petokas and an undergrad use scuba gear to try to find them.

In the case of the Master of Hell, champions in this part of their lineup tinkered with resources from the Bronx Zoo and elsewhere to raise them in captivity, tag them with microchips, and release them into the wild. But they’ve also tried a number of unorthodox tactics to raise the animal’s profile and attract conservation funds.

Peter Petokas, research associate at the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College, has tried crowdfunding. His work helped inspire a group of high school students who lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to declare him the official state amphibian.

“They borrowed my Hellbender suitwhich is really cool,” says Petokas. After two years of lobbying elected officials, the students succeeded. But none of that led to more funding, he says.

The masters of hell have several nicknames related to their unusual appearance, including "lasagna lizard," "otter snot," and "Allegheny Alligator."

/ Laura Benshoff/NPR

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Laura Benshoff/NPR

The masters of hell have several nicknames related to their unusual appearance, including “lasagna lizard”, “snot otter”, and “Allegheny alligator”.

Federal funding tends to go to game species

Since the 1930s, the United States has taxed hunting and licensing, as well as firearms, ammunition, and other equipment, to raise funds for conservation. In the 1950s, this model was expanded to include fishing licenses and equipment with the Dingell–Johnson Act.

Mike Leahy, director of wildlife policy, hunting and fishing at the National Wildlife Federation, explains that as a result, money often goes to species that hunters and anglers care about, such as deer and elk.

“There’s been this gap in getting funding for species that aren’t hunted or fished,” he says.

But many species identified as in need of conservation have a less direct relationship with humans. Invertebrates such as molluscs and insects, as well as fish and bird species are all threatened in large numbers, according to the US Department of the Interior.

Many conservationists talk about the loss of these species like flying an airplane while slowly removing every bolt, or part of Jenga. Each disappearance weakens entire ecosystems. But others prefer to think of conservation in positive terms, as an investment.

“I think the real value of preserving a truly rare and unique species is having it there for the future, for everyone to enjoy,” says Petokas.

A master of hell waits for his checkup in a container of river water.  The animals are entirely aquatic and breathe through frilly folds that run along the sides of their bodies.

/ Laura Benshoff/NPR

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Laura Benshoff/NPR

A master of hell waits for his checkup in a container of river water. The animals are entirely aquatic and breathe through frilly folds that run along the sides of their bodies.

Wildlife advocates hope that this imbalance may soon change. A bill called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which passed the House of Representatives earlier this summer, would dramatically increase federal government spending to protect American wildlife by creating a $1.3 billion annual fund for the conservation.

Led by Senators Martin Heinrich (DN.M.) and Roy Blount (R-Missouri), the Senate bill has more than 40 co-sponsors, including 16 Republicans.

“By conserving wildlife habitat, we will also preserve outdoor recreational activities like hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing that support millions of additional jobs,” Blount said. earlier this year.

A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technician brings two hellbenders back to the rocks of the creek where they live.

/ Laura Benshoff/NPR

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Laura Benshoff/NPR

A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife technician brings two hellbenders back to the rocks of the creek where they live.

The money would go to states and tribal governments to decide how to spend. The law would also require 15% of the amount to support federally listed endangered species. But it is unclear whether the bill, which has yet to find a source of funding to offset the cost of increased conservation spending, will go to a vote this year.

“If it passes, [it] really going to change the paradigm. It will be an absolute game changer,” says Sarina Jepsen, director of the endangered species program at the Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization specializing in invertebrate conservation.

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