Gila monster on its way to being named Utah’s state reptile

(Ted S. Warren | The Associated Press) This Dec. 14, 2018, file photo shows a Gila monster at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. The lizard could become Utah's state reptile.

The Gila monster might be among Utah’s rarest and most unseen creatures, confined to a piece of Washington County that overlaps the Mojave Desert, but the large lizard is on its way to being named state reptile under a bill that unanimously cleared a legislative hearing Monday.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, whose district covers nearly all of the Gila monster’s Utah range, sponsored HB144 at the behest of students at Lava Ridge Intermediate School, who studied the large venomous lumbering lizard for a science project.

“A state reptile can help represent Utah’s values and characteristics. It can also help represent the beauty and characteristics of nature in Utah,” said Kyla Larsen, one of several Lava Ridge students who presented before the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee on Monday. “It can bring awareness of the diversity of Utah’s 55 native reptile species.”

The students described the lizard’s features — its mild venom that can be used to make medicine, its life underground and its colorful beaded skin, which set it far apart from those other 54 reptiles, including the desert tortoise and Great Basin rattlesnake.

Many proposals to designate state plants or animals are initiated by schoolchildren, often keying into the more charismatic species inhabiting the Beehive State. But Lowry’s bill is remarkable because reptiles are already disproportionately represented in Utah’s list of official state critters. The state dinosaur is the Utahraptor, and the state fossil is the allosaurus.

Named for Arizona’s Gila River, the Gila monster’s low-elevation habitat in the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts barely reaches into Utah. But the creature has a strong connection with Utah’s American Indian tribes, according to student Austin Crosby.

“The Navajo used the Gila monster as a figure of power in many of their legends,” he told lawmakers. “Several tribes associate lizards with healing and survival.”

The students hope the lizard’s designation will help encourage efforts to preserve it in the face of many threats to its own survival after 100 million years in the Southwest.