Students, senators push to make hellbender state amphibian

Junior Gonzalez
  • A Senate bill drafted in part by students aims to name the eastern hellbender as the official state amphibian.
  • The salamander is considered "near threatened" by an international conservation group.
  • Students say the bill's passage is a chance for them to "speak up for something."

Students and local state representatives are rallying around a bill to make the eastern hellbender — which state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Allegheny, called “nature’s own testing kit for good water quality” — the official state amphibian.

Senate Bill 658 would give the designation to the slippery creature, which is the largest salamander in North America, according to a news release.

Eastern Hellbender

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council first came up with the idea last summer, and its members drafted the first iteration of SB 658, according to the release.

The bill is co-sponsored by state Sen. Mike Regan, a Republican who represents part of York County.

Making an impact: Council President Anna Pauletta, a student at Cumberland Valley High School in Cumberland County, said the council wanted to “speak up for something that doesn’t necessarily have a voice and making (an) impact on their survivorship through legislation,” the release states.

The eastern hellbender has a range in the United States as far north as upstate New York and as far south as northern Alabama, according to International Union for Conservation of Nature. It has a classification of "near threatened," with a decreasing population, according to the IUCN.

The bill states the hellbender’s Pennsylvania population is “drastically” declining because of the worsening water quality in the state’s rivers and streams.

Hellbenders survive in cold, clear and fast-running water and have “spongelike” bodies that enable them to squeeze into crevices for protection and nesting, according to the release.

Nature's testing kit: Yaw, who is chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said the hellbender’s reliance on clear water helps it act as a “natural barometer of water quality,” the release states.

Members of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council (SLC) are working with Senator Gene Yaw to have the Eastern hellbender designated as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian. Pictured are, from left, SLC members Anna Pauletta and Abby Hebenton; Senator Yaw; and SLC members Emma Stone, River Sferlazza and Andrew Waldman

“If they are surviving in the streams in this area, that is a good sign for the water quality,” he said in the release. “Here is nature’s own testing kit for good water quality.”

The Student Leadership Council says the presence of streamside trees and shrubs allow for the hellbender’s survival.

“Forested buffers are one of the most cost-effective practices available for not only keeping pollutants out of the stream but also for providing hellbenders cool, clean water and habitat to live,” said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Executive Director Harry Campbell in the news release. “Science tells us no other practice does so much for so many.”

Without the forestry along the stream, waters could warm, polluted water moves more easily and silt could accumulate in streambeds, the release states.

The bill would not include any requirements for protection by the state, but Yaw said the amphibian’s designation would help immensely toward its survival.

“The idea of promoting the name in and of itself is unique,” Yaw said in the release. “I think there are a lot of people in the state that have never heard of this particular creature.”

SB 658 was referred to the state government committee earlier this month and is awaiting approval.