Embattled Idaho G&F director stepping down

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Fish & Game director to resign
Sando will quit after two years with agency

1/23/02

By Roger Phillips and Rocky Barker,The Idaho Statesman


Statesman file photo

Rod Sando will resign today as the chief of the agency that manages Idaho´s fish and wildlife.

Sando steps down as director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game after only two years leading an agency shaken by budget woes and criticism from farmers and ranchers. He will submit his resignation this morning to the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.

"Our philosophical differences have become impossible to overcome, and I think it is best for me and the department to move on," he told F&G employees Tuesday in an e-mail.

Sando cleared up the financial problems and restored the agency´s morale after the stormy tenure of his predecessor, Steve Mealey.

At the same time, he gained the respect of sporting groups around the state. They already are talking about starting an initiative to further remove the department from political influence.

"This whole thing stems from the fact that resource industries, the governor and the Legislature can´t work with someone with integrity," said 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."

The agency sets hunting and fishing regulations for the state´s 350,000 hunters and anglers. With a staff of 500 people and a $62 million budget, it manages everything from bluebirds to bull elk.

Two months ago, the seven-member commission voted 4-3 to give Sando a raise.

Commissioners contacted by The Idaho Statesman either refused to comment or did not return telephone calls, except for Don Clower of Meridian.

"I´m very sorry to see him leave," Clower said. "He was a great director. It´s extremely sad to see him leave under these circumstances."

But Clower would not reveal the circumstances.

Sando prompted criticism from the Idaho Cattle Association by refusing its request that he withdraw charges against a man who killed three mountain lions threatening a rancher´s horses in October. In December, the Elmore County prosecutor dropped the charges.

A week ago, Idaho Cattle Association President Dave Nelson complained to the commission at a hearing.

"There´s a big storm on the horizon, and that big storm is over our inability to get along with Fish and Game," Nelson said.

The problem stems from some people in the department, he said.

"You need to take whatever means necessary to straighten these individuals out," he said.

Nelson could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

Sando´s resignation comes amid a contentious reconfirmation fight for F&G Commissioner Nancy Hadley of Sandpoint. A vote on whether to keep the first woman appointed to the commission was delayed once last week and again this week from today until next week.

Several lawmakers said their concerns with Hadley were tied to their opposition to Sando, especially on the cougar issue.

"As a farmer and rancher, I´ve never been more disappointed about anyone than I was with Director Sando," said Sen. Don Burtenshaw, R-Terreton.

But Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee, called Sando´s resignation "an embarrassment for Idaho."

"I think it´s very unfortunate," Noh said. "I can´t say I blame him, considering the publicity and some of the activities that are going on."

Mark Snider, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne´s press secretary, said it would be inappropriate for the governor to comment until Sando´s resignation is official. Earlier in the day, before the resignation was known, he said Kempthorne had no role in Sando´s future because under the law he serves at the commission´s pleasure.

"That is not something the governor has any involvement in," Snider said.

Sportsmen said Sando´s resignation raises questions about the independence of the commission and the department. Keeping the agency that protects wildlife free from political meddling was the intent of a citizens initiative in 1938 that established the Fish and Game Commission.

"The Legislature is always using the department as a whipping boy," Kent Marlor of Rexburg said. "It´s a perpetual attack on the 1938 initiative."

Marlor, who holds a doctorate in political science, said Sando was clearly a victim of politics.

"I don´t know how you could see it any other way," he said.

Marlor said he believes Sando´s resignation could ignite another initiative.

"Wildlife advocates in the state are not going to take this," Marlor said. "I would estimate this year there is going to be some initiative started."

Others in the state agree.

"It´s already been said we need another initiative, and something like this will create it," said Jack Fisher of Nampa, president of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.

Most sporting groups around the state also were quick to defend Sando, his leadership and administrative abilities.

"Rod´s done a great job," said Sandy Emerson of Coeur d´Alene, past president of Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation. "He´s brought a calming influence and a sense of confidence to the department it hasn´t had in a long time."

However, Sando had his detractors, particularly from Concerned Sportsmen of Idaho in the Clearwater region.

"One of my concerns was he hadn´t shown a deference to the Clearwater, in terms of our elk situation," CSI past president Ed Lindahl of Moscow said.

Sando was hired as F&G director in 2000 after eight years as head of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura replaced Sando when he took office. Sando succeeded Mealey, who was fired by the commission.

Sando, who first saw Idaho when he was a smokejumper in Montana, had always wanted to return to the West.

"When I came to Idaho, I was delighted to have the opportunity to live here and enjoy the magnificent resources we all share," Sando told his staff Tuesday. "I have come to really appreciate this place, and I hope I will be able to continue to live here."


To offer story ideas or comments, contact reporters Roger Phillips at rphillips@idahostatesman.com or 373-6615, or Rocky Barker at rbarker@idahostatesman.com or 377-6484.
 

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