Hell­bent for glory ... or ex­tinc­tion in Pa. wa­ters

The Southern Berks News - - SPORTS - Tom Ta­tum Colum­nist

When it comes to the plants and an­i­mals that rep­re­sent the great state of Penn­syl­va­nia, a num­ber of “of­fi­cial” cat­e­gories des­ig­nate the com­mon­wealth’s flora and fauna am­bas­sadors. A quick re­view: State flower? Moun­tain Lau­rel. State tree? Hem­lock. State an­i­mal? White­tail deer. State Game bird? Ruffed grouse. State fish? Brook trout. State in­sect? Fire­fly. State dog? Great Dane. State beau­ti­fi­ca­tion and con­ser­va­tion plant? Pen­ngift crown­vetch. We even have an of­fi­cial state fos­sil - trilo­bite.

I guess that, tech­ni­cally speak­ing, the white­tail deer should have been anointed the state mam­mal, since the deer, grouse, trout, fire­fly, and Great Dane are all broadly clas­si­fied as an­i­mals (and, of course, the Great Dane also hap­pens to be a mam­mal).

But in any case, if you’ve been pay­ing at­ten­tion, you’ll no­ticed a cou­ple of glar­ing omis­sions. At present, there is no of­fi­cial rep­tile or am­phib­ian rep­re­sent­ing the Key­stone State (even though quite a few other states have both). With rep­tiles, for ex­am­ple, West Vir­ginia has the tim­ber rat­tlesnake and Mary­land has the di­a­mond­back terrapin. With am­phib­ians, New York has the wood frog and Ohio has the spot­ted sala­man­der. Penn­syl­va­nia clearly has some catch­ing up to do.

And while there may be no po­ten­tial of­fi­cial rep­tile on the hori­zon, a very unique am­phibi­ous can­di­date has now been nom­i­nated: the East­ern hell­ben­der sala­man­der. This crit­ter’s grab for glory comes cour­tesy of State Se­na­tor Gene Yaw’s (R-23rd) re­cently in­tro­duced Se­nate Bill 658 which would des­ig­nate the East­ern hell­ben­der as Penn­syl­va­nia’s of­fi­cial state am­phib­ian. Yaw’s bill traces its in­cep­tion to the ef­forts 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.

Al­though most folks would agree that this slimy, spongy, dark olive drab brown­ish crea­ture will never win any beauty con­tests (one pop­u­lar nick­name is “snot ot­ter”), the hell­ben­der’s claim to fame is that it’s the largest aquatic sala­man­der in the United States. Al­though the av­er­age size is around 12 to 15 inches, it can grow to al­most 30 inches in length. How­ever, the CBF’s cam­paign to es­tab­lish this giant sala­man­der as the of­fi­cial state am­phib­ian has noth­ing to do with this crea­ture’s size or neg­a­tive cute­ness quo­tient; in­stead the bill aims to raise en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness. The hell­ben­der is con­sid­ered an in­di­ca­tor species, and when its num­bers de­cline it’s a sure sign of en­vi­ron­men­tal and habitat degra­da­tion.

“It’s about all species that rely on clean wa­ter, which essen­tially en­com­passes all wildlife in Penn­syl­va­nia, in­clud­ing us,” said SLC Pres­i­dent Anna Pauletta, a se­nior at Cum­ber­land Val­ley High School in sum­ming up the hell­ben­der cam­paign. “It’s be­ing able to speak up for some­thing that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have a voice and mak­ing im­pact on their sur­vivor­ship through leg­is­la­tion.”

“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.

“Hell­ben­ders are a nat­u­ral barom­e­ter of wa­ter qual­ity and they live where the wa­ter is clean,” Se­na­tor Yaw said, re­call­ing his 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.”

Not so long ago hell­ben­ders roamed the streams of Ch­ester, Mont­gomery, and Berks Coun­ties and through­out the south­east­ern re­gions of the state. But to­day much of what re­mains of a de­pleted hell­ben­der pop­u­la­tion in Penn­syl­va­nia has re­treated to more pris­tine habi­tats, still sur­viv­ing in wa­ters within Se­na­tor Yaw’s district that in­cludes Brad­ford, Ly­coming, Sul­li­van, part of Susque­hanna and Union coun­ties.

Hell­ben­ders thrive 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. 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.

One key prob­lem im­pact­ing the hell­ben­der is the lack of forested buf­fers along Com­mon­wealth wa­ter­ways. This lack of buf­fers 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 have been dec­i­mated in streams where they once were plen­ti­ful as re­cently as 1990. The plight of the hell­ben­der and its shrink­ing habitat raises the specter of the ca­nary in the coal mine. In Penn­syl­va­nia, roughly 19,000 miles of rivers and streams are fouled by pol­lu­tion. Im­prov­ing Penn­syl­va­nia wa­ter qual­ity is of crit­i­cal con­cern to the folks at the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion since the health of the Bay is ul­ti­mately im­pacted by pol­lu­tants that flow down­stream from the Susque­hanna River and her trib­u­taries.

The pres­ence of stream­side trees or forested buf­fers stands out among fac­tors that en­able hell­ben­ders to sur­vive. “Forested buf­fers are one of the most cost­ef­fec­tive 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.”

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 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 and per­sonal.

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 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 ten years and has cap­tured and mi­crochipped over 3,000 of them.

While a sub­species of the hell­ben­der, the Ozark hell­ben­der, has been listed as an en­dan­gered species, the East­ern hell­ben­der it­self has not, but is still clas­si­fied as a “Fed­eral Species of Con­cern.” In Penn­syl­va­nia all fish, rep­tiles, and am­phib­ians come un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Penn­syl­va­nia Fish and Boat Com­mis­sion (PF&BC). The PF&BC cur­rently lists the green sala­man­der as threat­ened and the East­ern mud sala­man­der and the blue-spot­ted sala­man­der as en­dan­gered. As with the hell­ben­der, there is no open sea­son on these species.

If Se­nate Bill 658 be­comes law, this big ugly sala­man­der can bask in the glory of be­com­ing Penn­syl­va­nia’s of­fi­cial state am­phib­ian. But threat­ened by its shrink­ing habitat range and with­out help and more clean wa­ter, the East­ern hell­ben­der may find it­self on the fast track to ex­tinc­tion.

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, visit www.cbf.org/hell­ben­der on­line.

Tom Ta­tum is an out­doors colum­nist for Dig­i­tal First Me­dia.


The East­ern Hell­ben­der sala­man­der could be­come the state’s of­fi­cial state am­phib­ian.

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