Friday, May 4, 2018

Who Will Be PA’s Official State Amphibian? The Eastern Hellbender Or Wehrle’s Salamander? Time To Weigh In

The stage is now set for the great salamander showdown with the introduction Thursday of House Bill 2328 (Reed-R-Indiana) designating the Wehrle’s Salamander as the official State amphibian of Pennsylvania (sponsor summary).
In November the Senate overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 658 (Yaw-R-Lycoming) designating the Eastern Hellbender as Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian as a symbol of the importance of clean water in the Commonwealth.
Sen. Gene Yaw, Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and a member of the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission, said Hellbenders “are a natural barometer of water quality and they live where the water is clean,” 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,” Sen. Yaw added.
Designating the Hellbender as the state’s official amphibian is a project of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council and they have been working for the passage of Senate Bill 658 in the Senate and House since it was introduced on May 2 of 2017.
Hellbender Competitor
Shortly after the Senate action in November, House Majority Leader David Reed (R-Indiana) circulated a co-sponsor memo to colleagues announcing his intention to introduce a resolution naming the Wehrle’s Salamander as the state’s official amphibian.
Rep. Reed said the salamander was discovered by R. W. Wehrle, a jeweler, businessman, and naturalist from Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1911. He was known for his submissions of animal specimens to museums and for providing outdoors experiences for area boys through his Boy’s Naturalist Club. In 1917, the salamander he discovered was named after him.
Associated Press Poll
The Hellbender/Wehrle Salamander showdown prompted Associated Press reporter Marc Levy @timelywriter to do a 24-hour poll on Twitter last November pitting the Hellbender against the Wehrle’s Salamander.  The Hellbender won handily with 90 percent of the vote.
House Committee
Both bills are in the House State Government Committee waiting for action.   The decision to move one or both bills is up to the Majority Chair of the Committee.
Here is the contact information for both the Majority and Minority Chairs of the Committee. Do you have a minute to send them an email?
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) serves as Majority Chair of the Committee and can be contacted by calling 717-783-1707 or sending email to:  Rep. Matthew Bradford (D-Montgomery) serves as Minority Chair and can be contacted by calling 717-772-2572 or sending email to:
Which One?
Will the official state amphibian be the rare, large Eastern Hellbender symbol of clean water or the more common, smaller Wehrle Salamander discovered by Pennsylvania’s R.W. Wehrle?
A scientific source told PA Environment Digest there is a possible compromise to this Senate-House dilemma.  
The Wehrle's Salamander lives primarily on land so let this salamander be Pennsylvania’s official State Terrestrial Salamander.  The Eastern Hellbender lives primarily in the water so let that be Pennsylvania’s official State Aquatic Salamander.
Everyone wins!  And a lot more people know about salamanders in Pennsylvania.
We will await developments…. meanwhile...
Background On Hellbender
Much of what remains of a depleted Hellbender population in Pennsylvania can be found in waters within the Sen. Yaw’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 Student Leadership Council. 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.
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,” Sen. Yaw said. “I think there are a lot of people in the state that have never heard of this particular creature.”
The Senator notes that the students will benefit in the process as well.
“Even in times of budget crisis and pensions and everything else impacting Pennsylvania, this is something that showed the student sponsors of the bill that their elected officials do, indeed, listen to them.  They had a great idea and I was privileged to present their idea to the Senate on their behalf,” Sen. Yaw added.
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.
More information about the campaign for the Eastern hellbender, CBF’s Hellbender webpage.  Click Here to watch a video about hellbenders.
Visit the Fish and Boat Commission Salamanders webpage to learn more about salamanders in Pennsylvania.
(Photo: Eastern Hellbender, Wehrle’s Salamander.)
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