(HARRISBURG, PA)—A group of high school students concerned about clean water and a slippery critter, along with a vote this week in the state Senate, have put North America's largest salamander one step closer to becoming Pennsylvania's official state amphibian.
"Passing Senate Bill 658, that recognizes the Eastern Hellbender, will hopefully spark attention and get people to thinking about why clean water is important," said Anna Pauletta, past president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's (CBF) Student Leadership Council (SLC) in Pennsylvania.
SLC students, who have studied hellbenders extensively, wrote the first draft of Senate Bill 658, and continue to work for its passage. With Senate approval, the bill was sent to the state House for consideration.
"The positive impact of Senate Bill 658 extends to all species that rely on clean water, which essentially encompasses all wildlife in Pennsylvania, including us," Senator Gene Yaw (R-23rd) told colleagues on the Senate floor before the bill passed. Sen. Yaw is the bill's prime sponsor. "The Eastern Hellbender as Pennsylvania's official state amphibian would symbolize the high value the Commonwealth has for pristine waters that run through it," he added.
Hellbenders are North America's largest salamander and survive where there is cold, clear, swift-running water. They prefer rocky streambeds. Their sponge like bodies allow them to squeeze into crevices which they use for protection and for nesting. Folds of wrinkled skin provide a large surface through which they draw most of their oxygen.
A lack of streamside trees 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 for hellbenders has been degraded and hellbender numbers have been decimated in streams where they were plentiful as recently as 1990.
Much of what remains of a depleted hellbender population in Pennsylvania can be found in waters within the Senator Yaw's district, which includes Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, and part of Susquehanna and Union counties.
The Senator remembers days as a youngster catching hellbenders in the local creek. "They are a natural barometer of water quality and they live where the water is clean," Sen. Yaw said. "If they are surviving in streams, it is a good sign for the water quality. They are nature's own testing kit for good water quality."
"Many people are surprised to learn this creature even exists," said Harry Campbell, CBF executive director in Pennsylvania. "It's prehistoric looking and elusive, but it's native to Pennsylvania. Through the exemplary efforts by our student leaders, Senator Yaw, and researchers like Dr. Peter Petokas at Lycoming College, this species is getting the recognition it deserves."
CBF's current SLC president in Pennsylvania said passing the hellbender bill is important for more than its recognizing a salamander in crisis. "It's about allowing people to recognize that there is an issue with clean water in Pennsylvania," Abby Hebenton said. "If we do not start acting to repair the damage that has been done to our waterways, there is a possibility that these intriguing, glorious creatures will no longer be able to exist here."
The opportunity to advocate for clean water and the support of legislators left a lasting impression on the young people behind the effort. "It's pretty awesome to think this bill was started by a group of high school students and made it this far," Anna Pauletta said. "It reflects impact that students can have on the local environment and the world around them. It sets an example to not be afraid to have an impact on the community, no matter how small the effort."
Co-sponsors of Senate Bill 658 with Senator Yaw were Senator Mike Regan (R-31st), and Senator Richard Alloway (R-33rd).
"The senators were absolutely vital in helping the bill get to where it is," Pauletta added. "They were very supportive and gave us great advice and were kind to our leadership council. It was refreshing to be able to talk to legislators who were open to ideas and community input."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Senator Yaw's comments on the Senate floor.