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


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?


io9’s Revised Lab Animals Article Still Isn’t Good Enough


Recently, I was going through on my phone. Normally io9 articles represent the perfect balance of nerd culture and science writing. I can find a review of the Jurassic World trailer, a review of the Star Wars teaser trailer, and find a blog about that new DNA research I’d been hearing about. But alas, everyone makes mistakes.

Thanksgiving Turkeys That Got Away

The Thanksgiving turkeys that got away.

Begin scene: I was reading io9 on my phone while my husband bought some last minute groceries, I had just finished bagging, for Thanksgiving. I was enjoying being hopelessly and socially unacceptably in love with my phone when I ran into this gem of an article:

“Why the U.S. Is One of the Cruelest Places in the World for Lab Animals” by George Dvorsky

Having worked with animals in a research setting for the past 7 years, I have some opinions on the subject, the most liberal being that at least some provisions should be provided to certain invertebrates. I proceeded to rant at my husband while I read bits and pieces of the article aloud in the car. This behavior lasted the entire trip to my in-law’s house. 70% of what I was reading was not congruent with what I experienced working with research animals with regard to the regulations I had to abide by, the attitudes of researchers, and most frustrating of all, the author kept quoting a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who clearly had little knowledge of regulations applied to animals in the United States.

After reading and ranting about that abysmal article in the car, I found, to my surprise, a link from my husband on my facebook wall this afternoon. All it said was, “Vindicated.” He had posted a link to a

An  invertebrates that is  very well protected with regard to how it's treated, but that's a whole other story.

An invertebrate that is very well protected with regard to how it’s treated, but that’s a whole other story.

new io9 article:

“Animal Welfare, Science, an Apology and Analysis.” by Annalee Newitz

It’s a response written by io9’s editor to, what was apparently, an overwhelming response by the io9 community complaining about the same issues I just mentioned. Newitz worked with Dvorsky to revise the original article to clearly state that the PETA representative was merely stating her opinion, included quotes from animal researchers, took out some blatantly false pieces of information, and added some new ,mostly correct, information. It’s refreshing when science journalists, of any kind, do the right thing. I was also pleased that, by allowing user feedback and actually interacting with users, io9 was able to achieve a kind of pseudo-peer review process. That’s really cool and goes to show how great the internet is with regard to dissemination of information….aaaand you’ve heard this line a million times.

The article, however, is still missing one giant, PETA soul crushing, piece of information… and it’s driving me mad.

For those of you that haven’t read it, there’s a neat little part about Canada in there:

“The oversight situation is quite different in Canada. While there’s no federal law in Canada to govern the treatment of animals in labs, it does have the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) — a not-for-profit organization that oversees the ethical use of animals in science. This organization actively promotes the ethical use and welfare of animals in science by providing standards informed by scientific evidence, verifying their effective implementation, and by increasing the level of knowledge, awareness, and sensitivity to relevant ethical principles. Any institute in Canada that receives money from a medical research council or big government funding body must be CCAC accredited. To receive money, these institutions must abide by CCAC standards — standards that are considerably better than what’s seen in the United States. That said, it doesn’t have legally binding regulations to empower it, and, due to its limited resources, it can only visit labs every few years or so.”

Dvorsky, in his article, completely neglects to mention to U.S. has its own version of the Canadian Council on Animal Care. In the United States labs can apply for accreditation by the non-profit Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International. AAALAC for short.

Here’s the juicy part. Any institution that wants funding from the National Institute of Health(NIH) must be AAALAC accredited or be evaluated by the NIH itself.  In special situations there is a loophole where institutions can write a letter saying, “We promise we are being good, but our research is really important and we don’t have the money and time for an AAALAC review right this second.”  Luckily that is more the exception than the rule. I digress. The NIH awards billions of dollars in funding to research institutions every year. Likely, at least one researcher at practically every institution is using animal models in studies funded by the NIH, at least in part. That means if the institution, as a whole, wants NIH funding, everyone at that institution must follow the AAALAC rule book, affectionately known as The Guide, to maintain accreditation and therefore funding.

According to a 2003 International Workshop hosted by the National Research Council (US) Institute for Laboratory Animal Research,

” As noted above, the Guide is the principal standard used by both AAALAC and the PHS, with both applying its provisions to all vertebrate animals. When one considers the number of animals being used at academic and other institutions that receive support from the NIH and other PHS agencies, and the fact that all major US pharmaceutical companies and commercial suppliers of animals are accredited by AAALAC, it is reasonable to estimate that 90% or more of the research animals in the United States are cared for and used in programs that apply the standards of the Guide.”

Garter Snake

This is the cutest scaly thing I have been able to photograph.

This confirms my suspicion that most research animals are held to the standard of care outlined in the “The Guide” rather than the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) alone. A major complaint of Dvorsky’s was that the AWA does not define rats, birds, and mice as animals, and therefore has too many loopholes. AAALAC, however, explicitly says that The Guide applies to all vertebrate animals; mice, rats, frogs, snakes, and even fish. Yep, AAALAC provisions for those lovely scaly and slimy things that animal rights activists tend to forget about because they aren’t in the least bit cuddly or neotenous.

“In the Guide, laboratory animals (also referred to as animals) are generally defined as any vertebrate animal (i.e., traditional laboratory animals,agricultural animals, wildlife, and aquatic species) produced for or used in research, testing, or teaching. Animal use is defined as the proper care,use, and humane treatment of laboratory animals produced for or used inresearch, testing, or teaching” -The Guide

Basically the U.S. has the Canadian system with federal regulations on top of it. Though Canada gets extra kudos for provisioning for the humane treatment of cephalopods.Happy Octopus

Paleo-Hokum: The Human Tendency to Build Romantacized Versions of the Past


High Plains Skeptic

Conservatives often seem gripped by an almost crippling nostalgia for days gone by, idealizing the 1950s as some kind of wholesome social Eden or arguing that the moral strictures concocted by people living 3000 years ago provide a useful template for a how to live in 2014. Occasionally characterized as hallmarks of the conservative disposition, such willfully romanticized, ferociously uncritical views of the past are products of a type of delusional sentimentality wherein one constructs a largely fictitious picture of history and argues that the present should be structured accordingly. The notion that conservatives have a proclivity toward adopting signally imaginative pictures of history is not entirely unfair. Indeed, the Right’s habit of repeatedly attempting to rewrite public school history and science curriculum to better match their ideological sensitivities hasbeenwelldocumented. The flaw in this perspective has nothing to do with its veracity. Rather, it comes from…

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Life in the Desert Starts with Life in the Sea


380 Million years ago the Pahranagut Valley in Southern Nevada was home to sponges.  Lots and lots and lots of sponges. Big sponges, little sponges, green sponges, and blue sponges.  (Actually, no one knows what color they were. I made that part up).  They were busy going about their spongey business, which mostly consists of filtering water for presumably quite a long time.

However, on one particular day, the peaceful sponges met with disaster.

It’s a little known fact that it was actually this mass genocide of stromatoporoid sponges that elicited the famous quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi:

“I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi on the Alamo Impact

The surviving post-inhabitants of Alderaan, being as species-centric as they were, re-wrote the history books, and the Alamo sponges were left out of Star Wars lore entirely. I digress.

When the biolide, or fancy term for “we don’t really know what it was made of”, hit the Earth and killed the Nevada sponges, it left behind a very interesting kind of rock called breccia. The Alamo breccia is full of limestone and, as you may have guessed, dead sponges.


The Alamo impact is particularly cool because it was a marine impact that, through geologic processes, is now available for study on land. So, if you are a thalassophobic geologist that happens to be interested in what happens to marine ecosystems and general sponge high society after they have been pulverized by a biolide, this is the perfect project for you! The Alamo Impact, even though the crater is estimated to be around 44km wide, wasn’t discovered until the early 1990’s.  “What? But the crater is huge!” you might say. Various geologic events have distorted the impact over time, so it took a crack team of geology/CSI fans to solve the mystery as there is no obvious crater to see.  The whole thing started with some geologists finding the breccia during a survey and scratching their heads, “This doesn’t look quite right… How did this get here?”  So kiddos, don’t ever assume there isn’t anything big left to discover, it might be right under your feet.  Once discovered, the geologists did a few analyses, had a few discussions, and I predict (p<.05) a few beers.  They finally concluded that “yes”, there was some kind of catastrophic impact in the Nevada desert.

To me, this whole thing is brain candy. First, there’s a huge crater in Nevada that no one knew was there until after I was born (go science!). Second, It’s pretty damn cool to think Nevada went from this:

To this:

How many non-human dramas and lives have played out here over the millions of years since the impact?  It’s mind boggling. If you have any empathy or capacity for imagination as a human, that thought should leave you in the same awe one gets from staring at the Milky Way too long or hearing the Hallelujah Chorus live for the first time. It is that spectacular.

Take this grasshopper as an example.

_DSC6520_lznThis grasshopper has probably evolved over the past few thousand years, and his camouflaged exoskeleton matches the breccia he’s sitting on perfectly.  The modern grasshopper, which has literally millions of individual ancestors and transitional forms, matches the color of the fossilized sponges that died 380 million years before it. The answer to the question, “Why is this grasshopper gray?” suddenly gets a lot more interesting. His color ties him to the Devonian sea in a very concrete but poetic way, far more elegant than genetic inheritance from his ancient arthropod ancestors alone.  He is gray because he returned to the fossilized sea, millions of years after his first ancestors appeared on the earth, and he must match them to avoid being eaten by still more ancestors of ancient beasts with even more ancestors and transitional forms.

Our kind have not been present long enough on this pale blue dot to truly fathom the ever continuing Opera that is life, or the fact that we don’t even make up an entire note in the music.  The Alamo Impact reminds me of that.

Read more about the Alamo Impact here:

In current biological events, here are some photos taken near the Alamo Impact.


Sunday Drives and Sagebrush Highs


I awoke this Sunday morning slowly, and went to the bathroom.  While I was doing my business the door cracked open.  My soon-to-be nephew was peeking in the door.  He is almost three, and no one else was awake.  I informed him I was busy, but that had no effect on him standing in the door.  After finishing up I realized that he was running around the house in the buff, having ditched his PJs in the middle of the night. Oh well. There are worse things when you’re three.

He took turns bothering his mother, and bothering my fiance and I by jumping on the bed in one room and then running to the other.  There was no sleeping in.

This particular Sunday, as all of you know, was Mother’s day.  I came downstairs to find that all the mothers, for various reasons, were taking care of the kids and also failing to sleep in.  To ease what I felt was some sort of small violation of the cosmos, I went to the store to get ingredients for French Toast so I could make everyone some breakfast.

On the way there I was disappointed to see a Redwing Blackbird and a Pheasant within easy range of my camera.  Alas, I had left the camera at home. I wanted to go outside.

I grew up with no siblings, and just my mother.  I am used to quiet and tranquility.  The typical noise and close quarters of any other family makes me tired, even though I enjoy it.

To ease the unrest that inevitably comes with long stints of socializing, we went for a Sunday drive.  East of Blackfoot, Idaho there are a lot of back roads, ranches, and what most people would consider to be swaths of nothing.  We decided we would take these back roads, and head to Gray’s Lake Wildlife Management Sagebrush SteppeArea.  With any luck, we would get to see some cool waterfowl.  During the entirety of the drive, we were surrounded by Sagebrush.  The Sagebrush Steppe ecosystem looks as though it would be good for a background in a Spaghetti Western, but not much else. Interspersed among the Sagebrush sea are Aspen groves that serve as habitat for all sorts of creatures.

The trouble on the range is not the want of good wildlife viewing, there’s wildlife everywhere if you are willing to stop and look.  The trouble is invasive grasses and the human psyche.  Anything that increases the frequency of fires kills Sagebrush, which is eventually replaced by Juniper trees.  The Juniper stands are inevitably more eye catching than Sagebrush, and people don’t even notice that one of the most iconic ecosystems on the planet is disappearing before their eyes. When I am old this Sunday drive might be a distant memory my grandchildren will only read about.Bald Eagle

After driving for an hour, seeing deer and a coyote, we came upon a steep hill with a jeep trail leading up to the top. The Montero made it up without a problem, and there were Bald Eagles riding the air currents up top.  There were Ravens chasing the Eagles, and any other bird that happened to bother them.

Ewe with Lambs


We came over the crest of the hill, and quickly discovered why the Eagles and Ravens were hanging around.  The hillside was covered in grazing sheep with their newborn lambs.  Blood still stained the wool on the ewes.  Bald Eagles are large enough to hunt lambs, but I imagine they are more content to scavenge for the still born.


Our encounter is an example of how hard it is to make a living out here, human or otherwise.  In fact, the only people that seem to live in this area are ranchers.  Some homes are boarded up, while other have windmills and solar panels.  It’s rugged here.  We like it.

At some point we got lost.  Not truly lost, but we weren’t entirely certain where we were either.  In such Mule Deerpretty country, with so much wildlife, it wasn’t a problem.  I was content to wait and see what we would see next.  We noted that there were lots of deer here, and it might make a good place to go hunting this fall.  I think the deer knew this too, as they were all especially wary.  At this time of year it can be hard to tell what the make-up of each deer herd might be.  The males are just starting to regrow their antlers, and the females are getting ready to have their fawns.  If I had to make a bet, I would think most of the groups we saw were young males.  In any case, all the deer sightings precipitated some strife in the vehicle. Couples should not have to share camera lenses.

Hot SpringI was getting more and more excited about everything we had seen that day, and mistook a very fat Marmot for a Badger, an embarrassing mistake to be sure. The mistake lead to us getting out and exploring.  We discovered that the Marmot den was adjacent to a hot spring! Well…lukewarm spring anyway.  Many of these lukewarm hot springs are home to tropical fish in Idaho.  Troubled fish owners with nowhere else to turn often release their unwanted fish.  Ecologically, this is a conundrum. The fish cannot leave the spring and invade surrounding streams because the water is too cold, but they can alter the water chemistry and introduce new bacteria to the spring.  Many of these springs are studied by microbiologists, and some of these sassy little microbes could become new bio fuels.  I’d rather the fish and their various micro-fauna stayed in their tanks at home.Sandhill Crane

We made it to the lake right at sunset, and were desperately snapping photos of this and that.  Sandhill Cranes are nesting this time of year, and Gray’s Lake was infested with them.  We vowed to come back next time we needed to unwind to take some more picture or go camping.  We lost the light quickly, and drove home in the dark.

There was no moral at the end of this day, just good time spent and memories made. If I had to try to make a moral up it would be, “get out your backdoor and go.”

Falcon at Sunset



Where the Wild Things Are: An Ode to Small Creatures


Spring has sprung, and I have been out en force with my camera.  Mostly, I take pictures of bugs, as I find waiting for that shot of the majestic moose or bugling elk to be an intrepid waste of time. Not that I wouldn’t take advantage of the situation if it arose…

Let me preface this by saying that I have been mostly devoid of opportunities to work with, what we call in the biology biz, “charismatic megafauna.”   By and large, I’ve been okay with that.  Studying insects has made me keenly aware that there is an entire hustling and bustling world available to me whenever I step out my door, so long as I am patient enough to look, and flip over a few rocks.

Yesterday, I found myself up Slate Creek flipping rocks in terrible weather.  While there were no herps (reptiles and amphibians)

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

lurking in the rocks, there were plenty of spiders, beetles, and crickets.  I love these little adventures because I learn lots of stupid things that I would have never thought to ask about.  For example, the kinds of crickets you buy at the pet store are not the same kind you find in the wild in Idaho.  Wild crickets are smaller, jet black, quiet little bugs (at least until night time).  Spider mothers that make nests under rocks must do so upside down if they have any intention of attaching their web to said rock.

On a similarly timed hike I took last weekend I got luckier.  I was especially pleased, though my dog was not, to happen upon a basking Sagebrush Lizard that didn’t mind me taking about a hundred photos.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

The dog wanted to get on with the hike, as we had just left the parking lot. The Cusick Creek parking lot is located next to the wild and scenic “Pocatello Women’s Correctional Facility”, and the road leading to it is adorned with a sign instructing motorists to avoid hitch hikers.  I don’t know what used to be near the trail head, but there’s lots of old concrete and a large overgrown building foundation.  I found this lizard, and one other that ran off, in one of these concrete piles.  Their pile was poking up in the Sagebrush, perfect for catching the afternoon sun.  I think it must be akin to a lizard mansion in the Hamptons. If you take the time to watch lizard behavior, it can get pretty entertaining.  Lizards often defend the best basking spots with emphatic head bobs.  Now that I know where this pair lives, I will visit them again.

Later on the same hike, I came around a bend and was poking around some logs hoping for a snake to come out. Instead of a snake, I found some snake food.  A Deer Mouse poked its

Poking out from inside a log.

Poking out from inside a log.

head out from inside a log and gave me a long hard look.  This is exciting because I only ever get fleeting glances of rodents, shrews, and voles in the wild.  I hear a rustle of leaves, and they’re gone.  This little fellow took a long time to check me out, and I was able to observe him in his log.

If I were primarily concerned with getting the big “million dollar photos” and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters I would miss so much.  On just two hikes I got some awesome photos and learned a few things, just as a naturalist is supposed to do.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold indicates that he is so familiar with the animals on his property, that he knows if a single Chickadee is missing.  He knows when and where they’ll be on his property during each season too.  As an avid hunter, he knew all the game birds and exactly what they liked to eat, and when each food was in season.  When I am out on my hikes I secretly hope that I am slowly gaining the same kind of knowledge Leopold did about his stomping grounds. Maybe when I am old my naturalist ways will seem like the sort of sage wisdom you read about in Tolkien books.

There is something about hiking that makes me nostalgic for naturalists I read about.  In biology, we consider old-time naturalism to be kind of a dead art.  It’s no longer enough to find an animal, sketch it, take some detailed notes, and publish a paper.  The art has been replaced by rigorous empiricism.

While this shift has given science a boost, I think that the tradition of good naturalism has gotten lost in the shuffle, and it was one of the best ways to get people interested in all the common things out in their backyards.  It’s too bad because that’s where conservation ethics start. Children and adults that make the time to look for the little plants and the little creatures in spite of this fact have a particular and highly admirable character trait.  To spend time looking for these small and common things in nature, begets a certain kind of empathy in a person.  It begets the kind of empathy that extends to, not only plants and animals, but all of our fellow men and women.   It’s the kind of empathy the world needs more of.

With that I will leave you with a quote from my favorite naturalist:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” -Charles Darwin

Taken near the mouse in the log.

Taken near the mouse in the log.



Last Chance to See – the Sixth Extinction?


High Plains Skeptic

Per the advice of my fiancé, I recently took the opportunity to read Douglas Adams’ and Mark Carwardine’s book Last Chance to See. I undertook the task a little reluctantly, not because of any particular lack of interest, but because my graduate research leaves me with very little time for recreation reading. This, of course, is my excuse whenever I’m disinclined to do anything. In this regard, it has been extremely useful, since it generally relieves me of the burden of the sort of careful introspection that might be involved in actually articulating and justifying my actual motives – whatever they may be.

So, after several months of careful procrastination, I finally cracked the cover. Until that time, I was only familiar with Douglas Adams by virtue of his reputation. This is probably a boarder-line heretical confession for anyone even marginally interested in science fiction, humanism, conservation, science, and…

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