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Editorial: Vote on Idaho giant salamander teaches student about Legislature’s federal fears

In Idaho schools, students may learn about the gerrymander, but what about the salamander?

The fate of a student’s bid to have the Idaho giant salamander named the official state amphibian should be featured in all civics courses.

Lesson: If you advocate for a cause, you must do your homework. However, that’s no guarantee legislators will do theirs.

The journey for Ilah Hickman, a 14-year-old student at Les Bois Junior High in Boise, began when she was in fourth grade. She turned a class assignment to advocate for a faux state symbol into a real-world attempt. She conducted research, consulted with herpetologists, and discovered that this particular species is nearly exclusive to Idaho. Its markings resemble a map of the Bitterroot Mountains.

She’s persuaded multiple legislators to back her cause. She’s inspired discussions on state symbols, salamanders and, unfortunately, the slippery ways of statehouse politics.

Last year, her bill passed the state Senate, garnering all but two votes. But House leadership said they just couldn’t make time for it. This year, the House State Affairs Committee did take up the bill, and it was rejected on a 10-6 vote.

It must be disappointing for Ilah to hear the reasons. She even anticipated one objection, but it did her no good.

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, said she feared that symbolic status would give the salamander extra protection.

“It can become protected – there’s actually no legal impediment,” she said, noting the example of the spotted owl in the Northwest.

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.”

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, merely pronounced the salamander “slimy” and “creepy.”

So a student who was praised for her diligence had to listen to the lazy reasoning of adults. The Idaho giant salamander is not under consideration for listing. If it were, it would be unprecedented for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to invoke “state symbol” as a factor. There are no court cases to cite. The bill’s sponsors had a letter from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office noting this.

Oddly, other state symbols have not generated the same concern. If lawmakers were serious about their fear of the feds, they would introduce a bill rescinding the mountain bluebird’s status as state bird. Don’t hold your breath.

In 2000, elementary students at Southside Elementary School in Cocolalla successfully petitioned for the huckleberry to be designated the state fruit. Legislators back then did not raise the possibility of federal shenanigans.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said at the time, “Isn’t it great that they are choosing to get involved at such a young age?”

Yes, it is. Be even greater if lawmakers would educate themselves, rather than give students a lesson in ignorance.


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