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Idaho House panel reverses itself, passes salamander bill

Ilah Hickman, 14, with an Idaho giant salamander at the state Capitol on Jan. 19, 2015 (Betsy Russell)
Ilah Hickman, 14, with an Idaho giant salamander at the state Capitol on Jan. 19, 2015 (Betsy Russell)

BOISE – An Idaho House committee today abruptly reversed itself and overwhelmingly passed HB 1, the bill proposed by an Idaho 8th grader to make the Idaho giant salamander the official state amphibian.

There were just two “no” votes on the committee; HB 1 now moves to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, and House State Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, both said they decided on the change yesterday when the House debated and passed a resolution marking “National Diaper Need Awareness Week.”

“I turned to my seatmate and said, ‘If we have time for a diaper bill, we have time to hear the salamander,’” Batt said. She said earlier she’d wondered “if we should clutter up the system” with bills like that, but the diaper resolution put that concern to rest.

Loerscher said, “If we’ve got time to talk about diapers on the House floor, we’ve certainly got time enough to talk about the giant salamander. We’ve had a young lady come here and do something that’s very important to her. She was sent away by the committee, saying it wasn’t worthy of discussion. It’s time we re-evaluate our position.”

Loertscher and Batt said they hadn’t talked with 14-year-old Ilah Hickman since her bill was killed on Jan. 19; they were planning to call the youngster right after today’s committee meeting.

Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls, who opposed HB 1 back in January citing fear of “federal overreach,” switched his vote and supported the bill today.

“I was new – I was new to Idaho, really, and the Legislature,” Cheatham explained. “I was trying to show my commitment to the state of Idaho.”

Cheatham said he had the idea that designating a state amphibian could somehow impact water litigation in North Idaho, but those fears have been put to rest. “I just feel like it’s the right thing to do,” he said of his vote today. “I guess it’s part of the learning process of a legislator.”

Ilah has been pushing for the designation since she studied the issue as a fourth-grader; she’s returned to the Legislature each year to present her bill, and has picked up support along the way from school kids across the state and from several herpetologists and other experts. Last year, Ilah’s bill passed the Senate on a 33-2 vote, but never got a committee hearing in the House.

This year, the House State Affairs Committee held a hearing just a week into the legislative session, but the bill died on a 10-6 vote; only two Republicans on the committee, Reps. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, and Lynn Luker, R-Boise, joined the panel’s four Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. Today, there were just two “no” votes, from Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, and Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs.

At the January committee hearing, Andrus told Ilah he’d seen salamanders in his Utah swimming hole as a kid, and they were “ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy.”

Ilah had brought in an actual young Idaho giant salamander for the committee to see.

The reclusive salamander resides almost exclusively in the state, she said, and at full growth, the pattern on its back resembles a topographical map of Idaho’s Bitterroot mountain range.

John Cossel, a herpetologist and biology department chair at Northwest Nazarene University, told the lawmakers in January, “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.”


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