SOUTH CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is launching a citizen survey to help track sighting of two salamander species whose numbers officials say are declining.

According to the WVDNR, the “citizen science project” will help biologists learn more about and map the distribution of hellbenders and mudpuppies throughout the Mountain State. The WVDNR says hellbenders and mudpuppies are the only two fully aquatic salamanders that are native to West Virginia. They are not poisonous or venomous and eat mainly crayfish worms and insects along with the occasional small minnow or smaller amphibian, the DNR says.

“While hellbenders and mudpuppies might look fearsome and strange, these salamanders are harmless to humans and sportfish populations and play a big part in keeping our waterways healthy,” said Kevin Oxenrider, project leader. “As we track sightings over the next two years, we want to encourage everyone to keep their eyes open, report their sightings and help us protect these important salamanders and their habitats for future generations.”

DNR officials say the project is expected to take two years to complete and will help protect the state’s hellbenders and mudpuppies as well as their habitats.

To participate, anyone who sees one of the two species in their local waterway can report the sighting by completing a short questionnaire on the DNR’s website. The DNR also encourages you to submit a photo of the salamander along with your sighting report.

“Every observation counts,” said Oxenrider. “You don’t have to be an angler to participate.”

It is against state law to possess a hellbender or a mudpuppy or take them from their habitats. The DNR says anglers who accidentally hook a hellbender or mudpuppy while fishing should immediately release the animal back into the water. DNR officials say this should be done by cutting the line as close to the hook as possible or by extracting the hook, with care to remove the barb with pliers before extracting the hook.