Eastern hellbenders will get new homes and other help through a six-state project powered by a federal grant and – in northeast Georgia – middle and high school students fascinated with the giant salamanders.

A Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies proposal awarded a $500,000 competitive State Wildlife Grant last week aims to evaluate how effective nest boxes are for hellbenders, find more populations through environmental DNA and probe the species’ vulnerability to climate change.

Bettys Creek hellbender 10 May 2016

The hellbender caught and released during recent school field trip. (Johnathan BySura/Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School)

Hellbenders may be North America’s largest sally, topping 2 feet long. But sedimentation and other changes to the cold mountain streams they call home threaten these bellwethers of water quality. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by fall 2018 whether to federally list eastern hellbenders.

Work proposed in the grant will involve Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Yet Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School sixth-graders, Georgia DNR and The Orianne Society got a jumpstart when a stream-focused field trip in the Upper Little Tennessee River watershed May 10 turned up a hellbender.

Excited RGNS students with hellbender

Rabun Gap-Nacoochee students, from left, Jordan Webb, George Underwood, AJ Nowack and Alex Haiss thrill at the sight of the hellbender. (Johnathan BySura/Rabun Gap-Nacoochee)

It was a rare catch. Although eDNA indicated hellbenders were there and fish surveys had documented them, DNR hellbender specialist Thomas Floyd had scoured 3.3 miles of the creek since 2011 without catching one.

The students were excited. So was science teacher Johnathan BySura. Rabun Gap will be a partner in the State Wildlife Grants project. For sixth- and seventh-graders teaming with Floyd, the focus will be on upgrading stream habitat throttled by sediment and other runoff by placing and monitoring hellbender nest boxes. High-schoolers will target collecting eDNA samples for Orianne Society, a Georgia-based nonprofit working to conserve amphibians and reptiles.

“We’re creating an awareness, an appreciation, for what they have in their own back yard,” BySura said.

Hellbenders need cavities under large rocks as breeding areas and refuge. When sediment clogs those openings, the salamanders suffer. Floyd said this marks the first time that nest boxes – in this case, 50-pound, teardrop-shaped structures with peepholes on top – will be tried large-scale in Georgia. Tentative plans call for 10 boxes at each of six sites, including the one Rabun Gap-Nacoochee students will monitor.

“The idea is nest boxes can augment habitat where there’s still some habitat but it’s degraded,” Floyd said.

Dr. Stephen Spear, Appalachian Highlands Initiative director for Orianne Society, said an analogy he’s heard is they’re like bluebird boxes for hellbenders. “It’s not going to solve every issue, but it could give them a helping hand.”

On a needy stream in northeast Georgia, watching over that figurative helping hand will be many real ones.