NC considers new state symbols, but that might knock the gray squirrel off its perch

·5 min read

North Carolina lawmakers spent the past five months mulling whether to honor various animals and even whether to oust the gray squirrel as the state mammal, a position it has held since 1969.

Animals showed up regularly in some of the weirder bills that lawmakers filed this session.

Both the House and Senate completed crossover week Thursday, a deadline for most proposed legislation to move from one chamber to the other, which is significant because it signals what bills could become law and others that couldn’t survive.

This session focused on policing, social-justice issues and reopening parts of the state closed because of COVID-19.

But other topics made people chuckle after being deemed important enough for a bill to be drafted.

A bottlenose dolphin off the North Carolina coast holds a jellyfish in its mouth as it swims.
A bottlenose dolphin off the North Carolina coast holds a jellyfish in its mouth as it swims.

Bottlenose dolphin

Bills are numbered based on the order in which they’re filed, and Rep. Bobby Hanig, a Powells Point Republican, wasted no time in filing House Bill 2, his attempt to make the bottlenose dolphin North Carolina’s state marine mammal.

Normally when these types of bills pop up there’s an elementary school class in the lawmaker’s home district that pushed to have an animal recognized. But when it came to the dolphin, Hanig said it was all him.

“This is a bill I ran last session,” Hanig told The News & Observer in January. “It was wildly popular throughout the state but I could not get the Senate to move on it.

“We currently do not have a state marine mammal and I believe the dolphin is the perfect fit for our state.”

Hanig made a case for the dolphin in his bill, saying the bottlenose dolphin is abundant along the North Carolina coastline and always appears to be smiling.

But lawmakers frowned at the bill and let it die.

A loggerhead sea turtle was spotted nesting on the N.C. Outer Banks.
A loggerhead sea turtle was spotted nesting on the N.C. Outer Banks.

No to the loggerhead turtle, yes to the osprey

Hanig had another proposed state symbol meet the same fate.

He teamed up with Reps. Frank Iler, Pat McElraft and Phil Shepard to have the loggerhead turtle named as the state’s saltwater reptile in House Bill 281.

But the House was salty toward the turtle and didn’t push it through.

The foursome had better luck having the osprey named as the state raptor, or bird of prey, and their bill received a unanimous vote to send it to the Senate for further consideration.

House Bill 336 took a different approach from other animal bills, as lawmakers pointed out that the osprey serves a purpose in alerting the state to environmental health concerns. The bill said that osprey are highly sensitive to contaminants and easy to track, making it a bird that could help alert the state to crisis.

They also pulled on House members’ heartstrings by pointing out that the use of pesticides dropped the osprey population to its lowest of all time in the 1960s, but the bird has been able to repopulate since. The bill writer compared the birds’ resiliency to that of North Carolina’s.

One of an osprey mating pair heads back to its nest on Lake Norman.
One of an osprey mating pair heads back to its nest on Lake Norman.

Replace the gray squirrel?

Hanig took that approach again with House Bill 671, teaming up with Reps. Edward Goodwin and Jason Saine to get the gray squirrel ousted as the state mammal and replaced by the black bear.

At first this sounds cruel to the squirrel, a favorite of school children surveyed in 1969. The squirrel makes its presence known in North Carolina more frequently than the bear by hopping across roads and dropping acorns on the heads of unsuspecting college students walking to class.

But the recognition for the black bear is meant to honor the life of Brandon Marshall, a 44-year-old hunter who was fatally shot in January during a duck-hunting trip in Hyde County, where he lived.

The bill said Marshall, known for his hunting safety advocacy work, respected the black bears of North Carolina and helped educate others about the animal.

House members passed the bill unanimously Tuesday and sent it to the Senate for further consideration.

In this 2016 file photo, a bear wanders Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In this 2016 file photo, a bear wanders Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

More animals — and plants, too

But in that chamber, another animal bill faced the same fate as the turtle and the dolphin.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, argued in Senate Bill 194 that the Linville Caverns spider should be named as the official spider of North Carolina.

Hise even made a case for it. He argued in his bill that the Linville Caverns Spider, a type of scaffold web spider, is unique to the state because it isn’t found anywhere else in the world.

But senators swatted the bill away. (Don’t worry, that’s our last animal metaphor.)

Lawmakers didn’t only focus on animals this session.

There was a plant as well.

Venus Flytraps, like those found in the Green Swamp of North Carolina, are native to the Carolina Bays regions of the Carolinas.
Venus Flytraps, like those found in the Green Swamp of North Carolina, are native to the Carolina Bays regions of the Carolinas.

Iler, along with Reps. Verla Insko, Ted Davis and Grier Martin, asked that the Venus Flytrap be recognized on a special license plate offered by the Division of Motor Vehicles.

The Venus Flytrap is the state carnivorous plant. Had the bill passed, the license plate would have recognized that the plant was discovered in North Carolina, and money spent to purchase the plate would have gone to the NC Botanical Garden Foundation.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, Megaphone or wherever you get your podcasts.

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