Seven hellbender likenesses — of the plush, painted, and mascot varieties — crowded a Capitol reception room Tuesday to witness Gov. Tom Wolf bestow the title of state amphibian on the wrinkly brown 20-inch long creature after a multi-year push by student environmental advocates.
“How many other bills do you see this much enthusiasm for?” said Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, who sponsored the designation.
Yaw introduced legislation last year to make the Eastern hellbender the state’s official amphibian, but it was held up by support from prominent members of the GOP for an alternative salamander. But this year, Yaw’s proposal sailed through the General Assembly, catching minimal flak from a handful of lawmakers.
The Eastern hellbender, a salamander native to all of Appalachia, thrives in clear mountain streams. It became a cause célèbre for high school students who belong to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as its presence is a strong indicator of clean water.
"..and if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." – Nietzsche pic.twitter.com/HItV5uZWTS
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Emma Stone, president of the foundation’s Pennsylvania Student Leadership Council, said that the amphibian has seen numbers decline due to “habitat loss, sedimentation, pollution, [and] disease.”
“Since hellbenders don’t have a voice of their own to yell at us for polluting their waters, we took it upon ourselves,” Stone said.
While the Wolf administration had hoped to get a live hellbender for the event, they were dissuaded by experts who said the creatures are delicate and require specific conditions — cool, clear, oxygen-rich water — to be healthy.
Both Yaw and Wolf — clad in a “hellbender defender” T-shirt — said recognizing the hellbender would serve as a call for the state to take further action to preserve the state’s environment.
Stream restoration is part of Wolf’s proposed Restore PA plan, which calls for the state to borrow $4.5 billion backed by future revenue from a natural gas extraction tax.
The money would be spent over the next four years on infrastructure. Proposed uses include flood control, rural broadband, blight reduction, and investments in natural gas-related industries.
The plan has received support from southeastern Republicans, but hasn’t been embraced by many lawmakers with drilling in their districts.
Still, Yaw, chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee and an industry ally, said he is in talks with Wolf over the proposal and that “there are some possibilities” to invest more into environmental programs.
“[Wolf] knows one of the big issues in my district is stream cleaning and stream restoration,” Yaw said.
The last live animal to be designated an official state symbol was the firefly in 1974. The state fossil is the trilobite — “an extinct category of jointed-legged animals related to crabs, lobsters, shrimp, spiders, [and] insects” — and was named in 1988.
The most recent official naming of a state object came in 2014, when the Piper Cub was named the state airplane, and the Pennsylvania Long Rifle was named the state firearm.