Press Release | May 7, 2024

Rare Tennessee salamander at center of new Endangered Species Act lawsuit

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday, arguing that the agency violated federal law when it denied Endangered Species Act protections for a rare salamander that is only found in a handful of East Tennessee caves.

The Berry Cave salamander has pink feathery gills, lives its entire life in caves, and can grow to over nine inches in length — making it the largest cave-dwelling salamander in North America. The salamander is also incredibly rare. Populations have been found in just a small number of isolated caves, and in several of these caves only one salamander has ever been observed.

“The Berry Cave salamander is found nowhere else on Earth, and its populations are dwindling in the face of rapid development and a changing climate,” Liz Rasheed, a senior associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said.  “This lawsuit seeks to correct an egregious error that puts this incredible salamander at an even greater risk of extinction.”

These already rare salamanders are under immense pressure from East Tennessee’s unprecedented growth. Berry Cave salamanders are extremely sensitive to water quality, and pollution caused by the area’s rapid development threatens their ability to survive. More than half of the caves where Berry Cave salamanders have been found are in Knox County, the second-fastest growing county in the state.

Even the largest observed populations of the Berry Cave salamander are quickly declining. Survey results have shown that a population found in Knoxville’s Meads Quarry Cave — historically one of the salamander’s relative strongholds — has fallen by at least 60 percent over the past ten years.

“The rapid decline of these special salamanders means we’re not doing enough to protect Tennessee’s water quality and special places,” said Chelsea Stewart-Fusek, an associate attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Endangered species protections would give the Berry Cave salamander a fighting chance at survival and provide funding for improving East Tennessee’s water quality.” 

Despite dwindling population numbers and an obvious need for protections, the Fish and Wildlife Service recklessly removed the Berry Cave salamander as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2019. The surprising decision contradicted earlier determinations by the agency that found the salamander warranted protection. The denial came at a time when the agency’s prior regional leadership had directed staff to implement a quota system that set annual targets for denying species protections. This quota may have inappropriately influenced the Berry Cave salamander decision.

In February, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service notifying the agency of their intent to sue. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and asks the court to vacate the 2019 ‘not warranted’ determination for the Berry Cave salamander.

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]