Original ‘Hellbender Defenders’ Celebrate 5-Year Anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Official State Amphibian

Five years ago this month and clad in a blue “HELLBENDER DEFENDER” t-shirt, Governor Tom Wolf signed legislation designating the Eastern hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian. Gathered around him was an excited group of passionate teenagers who made it happen.

Those original “Hellbender Defenders” have been inspired to pursue careers in the fields of conservation, education, and the environment. The former Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) Student Leadership Council (SLC ) members are working toward master’s degrees in Environmental Education, Wildlife Science or Conservation Biology, and studying Environmental Science and Outdoor Recreation Leadership.

The signing of Senate Bill 9 on April 23, 2019, was the crescendo of a three-year campaign by the students who had set out three years earlier to recognize the largest salamander in North America and create greater awareness of the critical need to reduce pollution in the Commonwealth’s rivers and streams.

“It is my hope that other student leaders across the Commonwealth may be inspired by our work,” SLC President Emma Stone said at the bill signing. “Making change is possible, no matter your age. All you need is dedication, support, and of course, a worthy cause. The hellbender is a worthy cause.”

“To think that future students get to learn about the hellbender is heartwarming because it will put this animal on their radar well into their adult lives,” Anna Pauletta said recently. She was president of the SLC when the hellbender campaign began in 2016.

Pauletta graduated from Cumberland Valley High School and then Penn State University in 2021 with degrees in Forest Ecosystem Management with a focus in Forest Biology and Wildlife and Fisheries Science, with a focus in Wildlife Biology. She also graduated with minors in Biology and Political Science. She is now serving as a paralegal specialist in the U.S. Army and plans to apply to law school in the fall. 

During the hellbender campaign, the students studied hellbenders extensively, they met with state legislators, and installed nesting boxes in several Pennsylvania streams. They wrote the first draft of the bill that was sponsored by Senator Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) in 2018.

Though the bill did not pass before the legislative session ended, the students persisted. When a new session began in January 2019, the measure was reintroduced as Senate Bill 9. The students helped guide the legislation to overwhelming passage by the Senate and House, and to the Governor’s desk. 

“I am proud that we had the courage to do something rather unprecedented; that we got back up and kept trying after our bill didn’t make it through the first legislative session,” Stone said recently. She graduated from Carlisle High School and then Mansfield University in 2022 after studying Environmental Science and Outdoor Recreation Leadership.

The SLC hellbender campaign garnered local, state, and national attention, making it onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal and was a subject of the iconic Mark Trail Sunday comic strip. A radio station in Canada interviewed Stone.

“At the time it felt very overwhelming, and I am glad I got to understand that no matter your age you have a voice and can make an impact,” former SLC student Anne Puchalsky said recently. She graduated from Cumberland Valley and completed her bachelor of Science degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science with a minor in Forest Ecosystem Management from Penn State. She hopes to obtain her master’s degree in Wildlife Science, or Conservation Biology. 

Five years ago, Governor Wolf said the bill-signing ceremony was about more than a declaration of an official state amphibian. “It’s about reaffirming our commitment to protecting our waters in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Clean water is critical for the hellbender, and we need to continue to do our part to improve water quality in the Commonwealth so that the first state amphibian can thrive.” 

Meanwhile, the most famous salamander in Pennsylvania continues to be celebrated. In October of 2023, the Eastern hellbender was recognized with a special Pennsylvania license plate that supports the Wild Resource Conservation Fund.

B.J. Small 90x110

B.J. Small

Pennsylvania Communications & Media Relations Manager, CBF

[email protected]

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