Six Pa. House members voted against naming the Eastern hellbender the state amphibian. Why?

By: - April 17, 2019 2:41 pm

The Eastern Hellbender, Pennsylvania’s official state amphibian (United States Department of Agriculture | Flickr)

After two years of inter-chamber warfare, the Pennsylvania House voted Tuesday to make the Eastern hellbender, a foot-long salamander native to the Keystone state’s creeks and streams, the commonwealth’s official amphibian. 

The proposal originated in the Senate, where it was introduced by Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, last year at the urging of students to bring awareness to Pennsylvania’s water quality.

“The passing of this bill is sure to allow hellbenders to breathe easier in the near future and give them a better chance of survival — not to mention a better chance for a clean water legacy in Pennsylvania,” Emma Stone, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Student Leadership Council in Pennsylvania, said in a release.

The hellbender — also known as the snot otter, mud devil, or Allegheny alligator for its wrinkled, brown appearance — thrives in clear water streams, hiding under rocks by day and hunting at night.

Before his retirement, former Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, had pushed his own bill to name a rival critter — the Wehrle’s salamander — as the state amphibian, holding up a final vote in the House.

But with Reed’s departure from the General Assembly, the hellbender bill sailed through this week — with some slight opposition. Six House members dissented on the proposal’s final passage.

“I don’t understand why we spend our time — I don’t understand why the Senate would spend their time moving the bill,” Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, one of the no votes on the hellbender, told the Capital-Star.

He added that he “likes lizards,” but thinks the chamber should focus on bigger priorities, like economic development, rather than naming another official creature.

Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, agreed, saying in an email that his no “was a protest vote. I think our time should be spent on issues like eliminating school property taxes and a balanced, no new taxes budget, not on what the state amphibian should be.”

Another “no,” Rep. R. Lee James, R-Venango, said he “couldn’t see the reason or purpose of having a state amphibian.” Rep. Brett Miller, R-Lancaster, declined to comment when approached by a Capital-Star reporter.

Still, the bill’s passage in the House provided a moment of levity. While chamber rules prohibit props for debates, bill supporter Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, brought a plush hellbender to the floor to thank members for their support.

The bill passed the Senate in February with one dissenting vote from Sen. Scott E. Hutchinson, R-Butler. Gov. Tom Wolf has indicated he will sign the legislation. 

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.