Committee slimes Boise student’s salamander bill

Rep. Ken Andrus looked into the eye of the Idaho giant salamander — and was reminded of the “creepy” amphibians that inhabited the swimming holes of his youth.

Ilah Hickman, 1.19.15
Ilah Hickman, a Les Bois Junior High School eight-grader, speaks to reporters after Monday’s vote.

Rep. Kathleen Sims looked at the Idaho giant salamander and saw, potentially, the spotted owl — and the legal protections that come with it.

The House State Affairs Committee looked at the Idaho giant salamander Monday, and did not see a state amphibian. On a 10-6 vote, the committee voted down Boise eighth-grader Ilah Hickman’s salamander bill.

Indeed, the committee did have a chance to look the Idaho giant salamander squarely in the eye. With the help of John Cossel, a Northwest Nazarene University professor, Hickman brought in a live salamander — in a glass aquarium, and in its water-borne pedamorph stage. Hickman, a student at Boise’s Les Bois Junior High School, likened this to the salamander’s “awkward” adolescent phase, before it reaches its full size of about a foot, and lives on land.

Hickman, who is in her fifth year campaigning for the salamander bill — didn’t just come to House State Affairs with an amphibious prop. She had several witnesses lined up to testify on her behalf, including Cossel and Frank Lundberg, an adjunct herpetology professor at Boise State University.

Ruth Affleck, a fourth-grade teacher at Boise’s Village Charter School, also spoke on Hickman’s behalf. Hickman spoke to her class last week, and by the end of her talk and video presentation, Affleck’s students were on board. “They were so intrigued by this,” she said. “They were just fascinated.”

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Hickman stayed with the talking points she has used in her campaign for the Idaho giant salamander. The species lives predominately in Idaho, in areas such as the Lochsa River drainage. In its adult form, the salamander’s back features markings that resemble a topographical map of the Bitterroot Mountains. Designating a state amphibian will engage students in learning science and civics.

Hickman and supporters also tried to deflect criticism from the committee. They were armed with a letter from the attorney general’s office, which said a state designation would not afford the Idaho giant salamander any additional environmental protections. While the giant salamander is secretive, Hickman said, it is not endangered.

Kathleen Sims
Rep. Kathleen Sims

Sims was unconvinced. The Coeur d’Alene Republican said she was mindful of the economic “devastation” wreaked by the spotted owl, and said there was no guarantee the salamander won’t be granted additional protections.

Andrus’ objection was more visceral. The Lava Hot Springs Republican said he and his friends stopped using a swimming hole when he was a child — because it was overrun by salamanders. Andrus said he could not bring himself to pay tribute to the “water dog” of his youth.

“I’m sorry, Ilah,” he said.

Ken Andrus
Rep. Ken Andrus

In addition to Sims and Andrus, eight committee Republicans voted no: Chairman Tom Loertscher, Vice Chair Gayle Batt, and Reps. Vito Barbieri, Don Cheatham, Brent Crane, James Holtzclaw, Shannon McMillan and Joe Palmer.

Six committee members voted with Hickman: Republicans Linden Bateman and Lynn Luker and Democrats Paulette Jordan, John McCrostie, Elaine Smith and Melissa Wintrow.

After the vote, Hickman said she’ll be back in 2016.

“I’m going to keep coming back as long as we can get a hearing for it.”

More reading: More from the hearing from Betsy Russell of the Spokane Spokesman-Review.