One Giant Mess: Politics Ruin the Idaho Giant Salamander’s Chances at Being Idaho State Amphibian

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Photo by Betsy Russel from the Spokesman Review.

Ilah Hickman, now 14 years old, has been trying to get the Idaho Giant Salamander listed as Idaho State’s official amphibian since 2013.  Today marked the end of her fifth attempt to get the salamander recognized.

Idaho Giant Salamanders (Dicamptodon aterrimus)  are found primarily in Idaho in and around mountain streams and lakes.  Adults can reach sizes of about one foot in length.  Their large size and restricted distribution make them a prime candidate, out of Idaho’s reptiles and amphibians, to be a state symbol, followed closely by the Courdelane Salamander.  A unique part of our natural heritage, there really isn’t any reason to deny Hickman’s request to add it to our list of state symbols.  She cares enough, and has put in all the work and followed appropriate procedures to get the species added. 52% of states in the U.S. have designated state amphibians, reptiles, or both.  A state amphibian is, by no means, and odd request.

Designating a state amphibian also helps bring amphibian conservation into public view.  According to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute,

Amphibians—frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts—are vanishing. In fact, 42 percent of the world’s 6,000 frog species are declining rapidly and are in danger of extinction in our lifetimes. Since 1980, 122 amphibian species are thought to have gone extinct, compared to just five bird species and no mammals over the same period. This is an unprecedented rate of species loss and deserves an unprecedented conservation response.”

Amphibians are especially useful for conversationalists because many (though certainly not all) are very sensitive to environmental changes like temperature, pollution, and disease.  They have potential as umbrella species, meaning if we protect amphibians, we will automatically be protecting other species that co-occur in their habitat.

According to Idaho Fish and Game, Idaho Giant Salamanders are potentially vulnerable to logging activities and pesticides, but more data are needed to make a solid conservation plan for them.  This leads us to one of the major reasons that Hickman has failed to convince the Idaho State Affairs Committee to designate the Idaho Giant Salamander as our state amphibian.  Don Cheatham (R-Post Falls) lays it out pretty succinctly,

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.”

In addition to political concerns, we have Ken Andrus (R-Lava Hotsprings),

“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.”

*insert long exasperated sigh here*

Disregarding the 5th grade level argument put forth by Rep. Andrus (Do you think he polled his constituents on that one?), let’s look at the concerns Rep. Cheatham has.

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973 to protect the United State’s plant and animal species in danger of extinction. When a species is designated by the federal government as “endangered”, a recovery plan must be put in place to help save the imperiled species.   A good example, in Idaho, is the White Sturgeon.  The sturgeon is also endemic to Montana, where there have been some legal battles regarding the best way to conserve the fish species.  Finding a compromise between endangered species and human land use is a rough business.  Implementing a recovery plan for an endangered species can be expensive, not to mention the cost of the many legal battles that come with it.  There are good reasons for politicians to have concerns about species in their districts getting added to the endangered species list.

But what about the Idaho Giant Salamander?  Is it in danger of being listed as an endangered species?  The state of Idaho lists the species as “vulnerable” but the salamander is not listed as threatened or endangered by the federal government.   What would it take to get it listed?  The United State Fish and Wildlife Service has made this nifty infographic explaining the listing process:

I challenge anyone to find the words, “Species added to list of state symbols” anywhere in that graphic.

Adding the Idaho Giant Salamander to the list of state symbols has absolutely no bearing, whatsoever, on whether or not it will ever be listed as an endangered species.  You know what does?  How Idaho manages it’s river systems and how much data is collected on Idaho Giant Salamander population trends.  In fact, the negative press the Idaho State Legislature creates every time it denies Hickman’s request is more likely to get people interested in the conservation status of the Idaho Giant Salamander than just adding it the state symbols list.  Personally, I never thought twice about the status of the Idaho Giant Salamander until I read the comments by Rep. Cheatham.

After reading about the salamander, I think that more data needs to be collected so that scientists can estimate statewide population numbers and identify the most important habitats to protect so that the Idaho Giant Salamander never makes it on the endangered species list. It would be much cheaper to do a good job of conserving these Idaho mainstays now than to let their population numbers dwindle until the federal government must intervene.

In addition to all of that, quashing this request is discouraging for any K-12 students that want to actively participate in state affairs.  If something as simple as designating a state amphibian is politicized, what message is the state legislature sending to other young people that have ideas for making our state better?

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