Idaho

’Creepy’ Salamander won’t be state amphibian in Idaho

Ilah Hickman, 14, poses for a photo with a young Idaho giant salamander at the state Capitol in Boise on Monday. Idaho lawmakers worried that special recognition of the Idaho giant salamander could lead to federal protections, have rejected the eighth-grader’s request that it be named the state amphibian. (Betsy Z. Russell)

BOISE – North Idaho lawmakers concerned about “federal overreach” helped kill a bill Monday that’s been pushed for the past five years by a determined eighth-grader who wants to designate the Idaho giant salamander as the official state amphibian.

Although an Idaho attorney general’s opinion advised lawmakers that designating a state symbol wouldn’t do anything to protect it or make it endangered, Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “It can become protected – there’s actually no legal impediment.”

She said as a North Idaho resident, she’s wary of tales like that of the spotted owl. The northern spotted owl, which lives in the old-growth coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, was listed as threatened in 1990, prompting big logging cutbacks.

Ilah Hickman, a 14-year-old student at Les Bois Junior High in Boise, told the House State Affairs Committee, “Students all over Idaho are interested in this potential state symbol.” She presented her extensive research about the reclusive salamander, which resides almost exclusively in the state; at full growth, the pattern on its back resembles a topographical map of Idaho’s Bitterroot mountain range.

New Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls, said, “My whole concern is potential federal overreach. In North Idaho we have the water litigation going. I just am in fear that something could be impacted if it became an endangered species.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, who co-sponsored Ilah’s bill, said, “We addressed that. We got an opinion from the Attorney General – it was very clear. I spoke with him personally. He said no way, no how was a state symbol going to impact that whatsoever.”

Ilah said after the vote, “I was kind of disappointed, but either way I’m going to come back next year and push it again. I’m going to keep pushing, until it either passes or I can’t get hearings anymore.”

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, who urged passage of the bill, told the House State Affairs Committee, “A salamander may be of little consequence to some adults, but I’ll tell you, the Idaho giant salamander that reaches 13 inches in length is a big deal to a fourth-grader. It stimulates their imagination.”

Idaho fourth-grade classes study state symbols as part of their Idaho history curriculum. Idaho has 14 state symbols, ranging from its state bird, the mountain bluebird, to its state fruit, the wild huckleberry. None of the designations have prompted endangered species listings or any type of protection for the symbols. Other Idaho state symbols include the state song, “Here We Have Idaho;” the state folk dance, the square dance; and the state horse, the appaloosa.

Bateman and Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, joined the committee’s four Democrats in supporting the bill; all other Republicans on the House State Affairs Committee voted no, and the bill died, 10-6.

Frank Lundberg, a longtime Idaho herpetologist who testified in favor of the bill, said afterward, “It is a mistake to ever overestimate the ignorance of the Idaho Legislature.” He added, “This is just absurd.”

Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the House committee that the salamander has a unique ability to regenerate lost limbs, and scientific research into that process could eventually help humans. Bringing attention to it as a state symbol could help spur that research, he said.

Ilah and her backers brought in a salamander in an aquarium for the hearing; after the hearing, kids and adults gathered around to see it.

Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, who voted to kill the bill, said, “A court could use anything that they needed to, to make sure a stream was protected. It’s probably more prudent to be conservative about this, and just recognize that this exercise was educational for her and the audience.”

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said, “Ilah, I’m sorry, and I commend you for what you have done and the due diligence you’ve done to bring this to our attention. When I grew up (in Utah), and I was a young boy, in our swimming hole there were salamanders, we called them water dogs. … I learned to despise them. … They were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy. And I’ve not gotten over that. So to elevate them to the status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.”

John Cossel, biology department chairman at Northwest Nazarene University, said, “It’s a perfect symbol.”

He said it would have been his first choice if asked for an appropriate state amphibian, and the best part is, it’s not rare – just elusive. The salamander typically hides under rocks, and sometimes people who have been fishing in a particular stream for many years have never seen one, even though they’re there.

“This is one, with a little bit of effort, families and kids could find.”