(HARRISBURG, PA) - State Senator Gene Yaw (R-23rd) would like to introduce colleagues at the Capitol to his slippery, spongelike friends and students who care about them.
"They are a natural barometer of water quality and they live where the water is clean," the senator said, recalling days as a youngster catching hellbenders in the local creek. "If they are surviving in the streams in this area, that is a good sign for the water quality. Here is nature's own testing kit for good water quality."
Senator Yaw has introduced Senate Bill 658 to designate the Eastern hellbender as Pennsylvania's official state amphibian. Much of what remains of a depleted hellbender population in Pennsylvania can be found in waters within the senator's district, which includes Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, part of Susquehanna and Union counties.
The campaign on behalf of North America's largest salamander is the brainchild of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) Student Leadership Council (SLC). The students have studied the hellbender extensively, wrote the first draft of Senate Bill 658, and are working for its passage.
"It's about all species that rely on clean water, which essentially encompasses all wildlife in Pennsylvania, including us," SLC President Anna Pauletta said of the campaign. "Being able to speak up for something that doesn't necessarily have a voice and making impact on their survivorship through legislation." She is a senior at Cumberland Valley High School.
"Long-term we are also looking to raise awareness for clean water in general, but within the legislative process as well, because it's an issue that is commonly overlooked," Pauletta added.
Without help and more clean water, the Eastern hellbender could disappear.
Hellbenders survive where there is cold, clear, swift-running water. They prefer rocky streambeds. Their spongelike bodies allow them to squeeze into crevices which they use for protection and for nesting. The slimy salamanders feed at night, primarily on crayfish. Folds of wrinkled skin provide a large surface through which they draw most of their oxygen.
The presence of streamside trees or forested buffers stands out among factors that enable hellbenders to survive.
"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 CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. "Science tells us no other practice does so much for so many."
A lack of forested buffers along Commonwealth waterways allows waters to warm, polluted runoff to enter rivers and streams, and silt to build up in streambeds. As a result, habitat has been degraded and hellbender numbers were decimated in streams where they were plentiful as recently as 1990.
In Pennsylvania, roughly 19,000 miles of rivers and streams are fouled by pollution.
The senator and the students believe recognizing the Eastern hellbender as the state amphibian can encourage more Pennsylvanians to protect it and its environment. "The idea of promoting the name in and of itself is unique," Senator Yaw said. "I think there are a lot of people in the state that have never heard of this particular creature." The senator is chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and a member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
The senator notes that the students will benefit in the process as well. "These are a bunch of bright kids," Senator Yaw said. "They've got some good ideas. They studied this. We will do it. It showed them that they have a voice and it does make a difference."
The student effort on behalf of the hellbender began last summer.
CBF student leaders have installed hellbender nesting boxes in the upper Susquehanna, and sampled streams for the presence of hellbender DNA. They gathered support for the hellbender designation from conservation groups, and visited the State University of New York (SUNY) Lab in Buffalo, N.Y. to learn about DNA testing. They also went to the Buffalo Zoo to see hellbenders up close.
The students are collaborating with Dr. Peter Petokas, noted research associate at the Clean Water Institute at Lycoming College in Williamsport. Dr. Petokas has studied hellbenders for more than 10 years and has captured and microchipped over 3,000 of them.
CBF's Student Leadership Program is open to all high school students and is designed to give them a voice and an active role in clean water efforts in Pennsylvania.
For more information about the campaign for the Eastern hellbender, go to www.cbf.org/hellbender.