Lava Ridge students persuade lawmakers to make Gila monster Utah’s state reptile

Utah Rep. V. Lowry Snow (center) is flanked by Lava Ridge Intermediate School students, teachers and parents during their visit to the state Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, February-March 2019 | Photo courtesy of Lava Ridge Elementary, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Gila monster is now Utah’s official state reptile, thanks to the collective lobbying efforts of a group of seventh-graders at Lava Ridge Intermediate School in Santa Clara.

In the closing minutes of the 2019 legislative session last Thursday night, the Utah Senate voted unanimously to pass House Bill 144, which amends Section 63G-1-601 of the state code to add the following line: “13) Utah’s state reptile is the Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum), whose habitat includes Southwest Utah.”

The measure, sponsored by Rep. V. Lowry Snow of Utah House District 74, had passed the House on March 1 by a vote of 56-8, with 11 others absent or not voting.

“Utah doesn’t have a (state) reptile. This will be a first,” Sen. Don Ipson of Southern Utah’s District 29 said as he encouraged his fellow senators to pass the bill in what ended up being the final action of the Utah Legislature’s 45-day session. Ipson was the bill’s Senate sponsor.

A few of Ipson’s colleagues briefly weighed in and expressed their support of the bill before a roll call vote was called.

“I think it’s awesome that these kids contacted their local representative and worked through the legislative process, and I’m really hoping we deliver them a victory tonight,” Sen. Deidre Henderson said as she mentioned one of the “cool” facts she learned about Gila monster.

Utah Rep. V. Lowry Snow is flanked by Lava Ridge Intermediate School students during their Gila monster presentation to the Utah House natural resources committee, Salt Lake City, Utah, February 2019 | Photo courtesy of Lava Ridge Elementary, St. George News

“There is a drug that is developed from the Gila monster’s saliva that helps diabetics control glucose and lose weight,” Henderson said.

Sen. Todd Weiler added jokingly, “I did not know the Gila monster stored its fat in its tail, and I felt like we had something in common.”

Sen. Ralph Okerlund complimented the children for the presentations they had made during the committee meetings.

“They were outstanding, and I hope word gets passed back to them, how great they were,” Okerlund said, adding that he and his fellow lawmakers also appreciated receiving many emails from students about the bill.

Lava Ridge science teacher Alison Lund told St. George News the students tracked the progress of the bill as it moved from the Natural Resources Committee to the floor of the House, then was passed by a Senate committee and sent to the full Senate, where it passed by a 29-0 vote. At each stage of the process, dozens of Lava Ridge students involved in the project sent emails to the legislators asking for their support, Lund said.

Read more: Lava Ridge students hope to persuade legislators to make the Gila monster Utah’s official state reptile

“It was their determination, not unlike the Gila monster’s, that got this legislation passed,” Lund said Friday, the day after the successful vote. The measure now awaits Gov. Gary Herbert’s signature.

Stock image of Gila monster lizard (Heloderma suspectum) at the American International Rattlesnake Museum, Albuquerque, N.M., circa 2007. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

“I am still in shock that it was voted on last night and could not be more proud of these kids,” Lund added, noting that the students had tackled the months-long project with “unexpected” eagerness.

“They found facts and made connections that I never knew existed,” she said. “I am so excited that they have had the opportunity to learn about bills and that regardless of the outcome, they now know how to have a voice in the changing and creating of laws.”

Lava Ridge student Kyla Larsen called the experience “very educational.”

“There were about 70 seventh-grade students participating in this event, and we all learned a lot from it,” she said.

Larsen was one of the four students chosen to make the formal presentations during the committee meetings. She was joined by Semaj Thompson, Austin Crosby and Joseph Tsai.

Those four, along with seven other Lava Ridge students and few teachers and parents, made the school’s initial field trip to the state Capitol in late February.

“We were all very nervous and we practiced for about an hour before we presented,” Larsen said. “We all studied very hard, and I believe that we all did our best in collaboration. We were even working on the project during the trip there.”

Then, following the bill’s passage in the Utah House on March 1, Larsen and her fellow presenters traveled back up to Salt Lake City a week or so later for a brief visit to address the Senate committee.

A Lava Ridge Intermediate School student works on a presentation about making the Gila Monster the official state reptile of Utah, Santa Clara, Utah, date of photo not specified | Photo courtesy of Alison Lund, Lava Ridge Intermediate, St. George News

“It was a very eye-opening experience to be a part of the law process,” Larsen said, adding, “I enjoyed it very much, and I believe that children should have a say in what goes on in our government. When children grow up, they are the ones running the country, so it is a great opportunity to learn how our government works. This was not just about the reptile, but about education and having a say in what goes on in Utah.”

Lawmakers Snow and Ipson both told St. George News they greatly enjoyed working with the Lava Ridge students and listening to their comments about the issue.

“It taught them a lot about the process,” Snow said. “It also taught them that they have the ability to reach out to their elected representatives and initiate the process. I’m just so pleased that we were able to get it accomplished in the session, because the process was a little later than I would have liked. I was really worried that we weren’t going to get it through before the end of the session.”

Monday, the first day the Lava Ridge students were back in school after last week’s spring break, Lund reported that the children were “ecstatic” about the news.

“We will be having a root beer float party to celebrate,” Lund said, adding that the students aren’t stopping there, as they are already talking about mounting a campaign to change the school’s mascot from the gecko to the Gila monster.

“So now, that ball is rolling,” Lund said. “The students are meeting in my room tomorrow morning to discuss the hurdles and timeline (presentations and information to the whole school again, peer vote, presentations for adult leadership at our school, PTA, community council, and school board). And just when I thought we were done.”

Update April 1, 4 p.m. Gov. Gary Herbert officially signed HB 144 into law on March 27.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.


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