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Sam Hamilton's Vision


Sam Hamilton, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, died last Saturday after suffering chest pains while skiing with friends outside Frisco, Colo. He was just 54.

Hamilton had been on the job only five and a half months, but he'd laid out an ambitious new agenda for the agency, pushing it to focus on the coming impacts of climate change and plan ahead for major shifts in wildlife range and habitat. He was a champion of "landscape-scale conservation," which aims to bring state and federal agencies together with private landowners to manage large swaths of land transcending property boundaries. (A similar idea, the Wildlands Network's Spine of the Continent Project, is described in our last issue).

In an interview with ClimateWire in December, Hamilton stressed that the agency needs to anticipate the effects of climate change and plan accordingly:

The biggest immediate need is to beef up the agency’s scientific capacity, a long-neglected area, Hamilton said…

To do this, scientists face a daunting task of wedding global climate data to regional models specific to a habitat or wildlife population.

Such information, for example, would help FWS predict where a species might migrate as climate warms – and plan how to help it get there. An effort to set up a migration corridor in the Northern Rockies is already under way to deal with threats like climate and habitat fragmentation. There, ranchers are getting payments to keep their lands instead of selling to developers.

His priorities are already reflected in Fish and Wildlife’s 2011 budget requests, being debated now. As Greenwire explains:

The Obama administration has proposed redirecting cash and personnel toward climate research and acquisition of land that would become corridors for wildlife moving as temperatures rise and habitat changes…

The heart of the effort is a new program, “landscape conservation cooperatives,” which is aimed at uniting federal agencies, states, nonprofits and universities to advise on the service’s regional management decisions. Theirs will be a “daunting task,” Hamilton said, of helping design strategic regional conservation plans that consider the impact of rising temperatures, water scarcity, disease and invasive species on plants and animals…

The budget also makes a significant deposit on land acquisition, $106 million, a boost of nearly 12 percent above last year’s levels…Hamilton said he wants to restore land-purchasing programs with an eye toward creating refuges for species being driven out of their native ranges by climate change.

Many conservationists embraced Hamilton’s approach, though some, like the Center for Biological Diversity, have worried that his changes will come at the cost of the agency's traditional mission: interpreting and enforcing the Endangered Species Act, and managing the National Wildlife Refuge system. The agency faces a massive backlog of species nominated for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Hamilton was a 30-year veteran of Fish and Wildlife, serving as the agency's Texas State Administrator and then Southeast Regional Director before Obama appointed him to the Director's seat last June - his family still lives in Atlanta. While working in the Southeast, he supervised the agency's restoration of the Florida Everglades, and its wetlands recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. (He also negotiated the military's recovery program for the red-cockaded woodpecker on Fort Bragg, a project recently featured in The New York Times.)

Rowan Gould, the deputy director of operations under Hamilton, will serve as acting director until President Obama nominates a replacement.