Press Release | February 13, 2024

Conservation groups threaten lawsuit over rare East Tennessee salamander

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, today notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service it intends to sue over the agency’s denial of Endangered Species Act protections for a rare salamander only found in a handful of East Tennessee caves.

Berry Cave salamanders have feathery pink gills, spend their entire lives in caves, and are dependent on clean water. The salamander has been found in just a small number of isolated caves across four Tennessee counties.

The salamander’s already small populations are quickly declining. Survey results indicate, for example, that a population found in Knoxville’s Meads Quarry Cave has fallen by at least 60 percent over the past decade. In several of the caves where the salamander has been recorded, only one specimen has ever been observed. Rapid development in East Tennessee puts the salamander at an even greater risk of extinction.

“Salamanders’ permeable skin makes them extremely sensitive to pollutants in their environment,” said Liz Rasheed, a senior associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The Berry Cave salamander’s increasing rarity raises alarm bells not only for the species itself but also for the health of the delicate cave ecosystems it inhabits.”

Despite its dwindling numbers, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Berry Cave salamander as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2019. This surprising decision disregarded the salamander’s precarious status and contradicted earlier determinations by the agency that found the salamander warranted protection. At the time of the denial, prior regional leadership in the agency’s Southeastern office had directed staff to implement a quota system setting annual targets for denying species protections. This quota could have influenced the Berry Cave salamander decision and resulted in other, already-listed species being stripped of protection.

“These special little salamanders can’t adapt quickly enough to the multitude of threats they face and urgently need the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Chelsea Stewart-Fusek, an associate attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Service’s poorly supported denial of protection for the Berry Cave salamander could spell its demise in the face of climate change and unchecked pollution.”

A 60-Day Notice of Intent to Sue is required under the Endangered Species Act. The letter, which outlines the conservation groups’ allegations, gives the Fish and Wildlife Service 60 days to correct its violations. If the agency refuses, the conservation groups can move forward with a lawsuit.

For photos of the Berry Cave Salamander, contact Dr. Matthew Niemiller.

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Press Contacts

Eric Hilt

Senior Communications Manager (TN)

Phone: 615-921-9470
Email: [email protected]

Partner Contacts

Chelsea Stewart-Fusek

Center for Biological Diversity

Email: [email protected]