Predator politics gets ugly in Idaho

Fish and Game Director Rod Sando quits

  • HAPPIER DAYS: Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, left, and then-Fish and Game Director Rod Sando

    Kim Hughes photo, The Idaho Statesman
 

BOISE, Idaho - In a big bite of predator politics, the director of Idaho's wildlife agency has resigned abruptly, under pressure from agriculture interests and Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, R.

"Philosophical differences have become impossible to overcome," said Rod Sando in an e-mail sent to his 511 employees in the state's Department of Fish and Game on January 23.

Leaders of Idaho's hunters and anglers lost no time rallying against the political pressure, which came from ranchers and farmers upset with Sando's stance on predator control. In an unusual action, within a few days they announced a campaign to put the control of the wildlife agency to a statewide vote.

"This whole thing stems from the fact that resource industries, the governor and the Legislature can't work with someone with integrity," says Bill Goodnight, an Idaho Wildlife Federation board member. "Sando's been a great administrator, a good guy and a great director. That's been his downfall."

It added up to more evidence that the top wildlife job in any Western state is increasingly a hazardous post, often due to clashes over management of wolves, lions, bears, coyotes and other predators. Fish and Game directors in the Western states average just four years in office, says Max Peterson, executive vice president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Sando lasted less than two years atop an agency that manages everything from bluebirds to bull elk, and sets regulations for Idaho's 350,000 hunters and anglers.

With its $63 million budget raised almost entirely from federal funds and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, Idaho Fish and Game might appear independent. But like most state wildlife agencies, it's susceptible to politics, with its director hired or fired by a group of political appointees * seven Fish and Game commissioners who are nominated by the governor and approved by the state Senate.

More and more, Idaho's commissioners have leaned toward the concerns of farmers and ranchers, demanding aggressive efforts to kill predators, trying to protect livestock and increase herds of deer and elk. Farmers and ranchers also dislike the Department of Fish and Game's control over land and its involvement in endangered species protection.

Refusing to fix a ticket

Sando, who had run Minnesota's wildlife agency, took over Idaho Fish and Game in 1999 as a reformer. He cleared up financial problems, restored the agency's morale and regained the respect of sporting groups around the state. He also backed the agency's biologists in disputes over predators and other issues.

His path to a showdown started last October, near Mountain Home, where rancher Donna Edmiston enlisted a neighbor, Bud Corbus, to shoot three mountain lions they said were chasing horses.

Idaho law allows ranchers to kill predators that are "harassing" livestock, but a state wildlife agent issued two tickets to Corbus, charging he'd violated lion-hunting regulations. A local Elmore County prosecutor also determined there was probable cause for the charges.

But the Idaho Cattle Association's president-elect, Ted Hoffman, pressured Sando to get the charges dropped. Sando refused, saying that would be "fixing a ticket." He stood on the principle it was up to the justice system to determine the outcome.

The prosecutor dropped the charges in December, saying the only witnesses portrayed the lion kills as justified. By then, the heat was building against Sando.

In a January hearing, Idaho Cattle Association President Dave Nelson told the commissioners, "There's a big storm on the horizon ... over our inability to get along with Fish and Game. ... You need to take whatever means necessary to straighten these individuals out."

Gov. Kempthorne and some of his staff met with the commissioners twice the same week. Publicly, Kempthorne denied issuing orders, but he acknowledged he raised concerns over the direction of the department. Commissioner Don Clower of Meridian said the message was clear: "Fix the problem, and the only problem was Rod Sando."

Hunters may be split

Until recently, Idaho governors kept an arm's length from Fish and Game, respecting the spirit of a 1938 citizens' initiative that created the commission.

Now, some citizens are once again trying to protect the agency from political meddling. The Idaho Wildlife Federation, allied with other groups, has drafted a voter initiative petition that would reduce the number of commissioners to five and require the governor to choose them from a list voted upon in public caucuses held around the state. The Senate would no longer have power over nominees.

"The sportsmen of this state think the commission has been hijacked," says Commissioner Clower, who supports the petition.

The campaign must gather 43,685 signatures by April 30 and win a majority of votes in November's general election. Before that can begin, Idaho Attorney General Alan Lance must review the initiative's constitutionality.

"It provides the first opportunity in a generation for everyone who cares about wildlife to work together," says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.

But it's naive to think any system can shield wildlife policy from politics, Commissioner Roy Moulton of Driggs says. "If you are managing a public resource, then, inherently, you are involved in politics."

The initiative effort is not a slam dunk; there's not even unity among hunters or biologists. The modern prevailing view - that habitat management is the best way to encourage game herds - is being challenged by some who are once again focusing on killing predators. A third faction, non-hunters, would like to see thriving predator populations.

Sando, 60, accepted a severance package of six months' pay and benefits. The day Sando quit, Moulton led a majority of the commissioners to reopen the lion season in eastern Idaho and up the quota of female lions beyond the recommendation of the state's biologists.

An interim director took over the Department of Fish and Game, but he said he doesn't want the job long-term.

Rocky Barker and Roger Phillips are reporters for the Idaho Statesman in Boise.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Don Clower, Idaho Fish and Game Commission, 208/888-7020;
  • Idaho Wildlife Federation, 208/342-7055.

    Copyright © 2002 HCN and Rocky Barker and Roger Phillips
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