Idaho names new F&G head. Third director hired since 1996

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Fish & Game veteran will head agency.
Steve Huffaker is the third director hired since 1996

By Roger Phillips, The Idaho Statesman

2/14/02

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission dipped into the agency´s ranks and named a new director three weeks after Rod Sando resigned under pressure.

Commissioners unanimously hired Steve Huffaker as permanent director of the embattled department on Wednesday. He is the third director hired since 1996 and the first permanent director hired from within the department.

"I´m excited," Huffaker said. "This is something I´ve looked forward to my whole career."

The department will continue to be "biologically driven," he said, and it will continue to present the best biological data to the commission and let it set the policy.

"When the policies are in place, we will follow them," he said.

Huffaker also expects politics to be involved in setting those policies.

"Wildlife affects the day-to-day lives of a lot of people in Idaho," he said. "I think politics is just a reality of wildlife management in today´s world."

Huffaker said he will continue many of Sando´s programs. Sando is credited with straightening out the department´s finances, improving its customer service and starting a strategic planning process for the agency.

"I think he has put very thoughtful processes into play, and we will keep them," Huffaker said.

Huffaker has been F&G´s Wildlife Bureau chief since 1997. Before that he was the chief of fisheries for eight years, and an interim deputy director under Jerry Mallet and Sando.

He takes the helm of an agency with a $63 million budget and 511 employees that is charged with managing the state´s wildlife and balancing the interests of sportsmen, politicians, industries and wildlife watchers.

Huffaker´s selection drew immediate praise from sportsmen and politicians for his experience and knowledge of the state´s wildlife issues and challenges.

"I think Steve´s a good guy for the job, and I have a lot of confidence in him," Sando said.

Sporting groups behind an initiative drive to reform the F&G commission said they also support Huffaker.

"I believe Steve will be a very qualified replacement," said Jack Fisher, president of the Idaho Wildlife Federation. "If I´d made the selection myself, I probably wouldn´t deviate from what they did."

"One of the things I told the F&G commission was that there´s a lot of talent right here in Idaho," Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said in a press release. "I think a lot of people will sit up and take notice and respect what he brings to the table. He´s an effective individual, both one on one and in groups, and right now, there´s a need for someone who can communicate and is a good listener."

Kempthorne´s sentiments were echoed elsewhere in the Statehouse.

"He´s always been good to work with," Rep. Mike Moyle, R. Star said. "He´s a straight-up guy."

Huffaker serves at the pleasure of the commission.

While Huffaker was the commissioners´ unanimous selection, so was Sando two years ago.

He resigned in January under pressure from the commission and the governor´s office. Sando said "philosophical differences" between him and the commission led to his resignation.

Sando´s predecessor, Steve Mealey, lasted about two years before he was fired by the commission.

Commissioners are divided on what the best direction is for the department on matters such as salmon, predators and how to incorporate biology into management decisions.

Many sportsmen have said they feel the commission caved to political pressures before Sando´s resignation.

Commissioners said they hope Huffaker´s hiring will calm some of the recent controversies.

"I believe Steve will provide the calming effect we need right now," Commissioner Don Clower of Meridian said.

Huffaker faces a new political climate where the governor´s office has taken a more active role in managing the department than previous governors have.

"That´s an agency I give direction to," Kempthorne said recently. "And I will continue to do so."

Former F&G Commissioner Richard Meiers of Eagle said Huffaker is an excellent choice for director, but he will face the same political pressures Sando faced.

"The crux of the whole thing is will the politicians leave him alone?" Meiers asked. "I have no reason to believe they´re not going to continue to meddle in F&G matters."

Huffaker also could face an entirely new commission next year if a voter initiative petition in the works makes it on the ballot and is approved by voters in November.

IWF president Fisher said work on the petition to reform the commission will continue.

"Our initiative is not about the Fish and Game director," he said. "It´s about how we appoint the Fish and Game commission."

Huffaker applied for the director´s job twice before but was passed over when Mealey and Sando were hired.

Sandpoint Commissioner Nancy Hadley said there were more experienced candidates during previous hirings.

"In the last cycle, there were some very qualified people who had more experience than Steve," Hadley said.

Huffaker´s resume and experience has since grown, and he knows the state and all its wildlife issues, Hadley said.

"He´s going to have to grow into the shoes of the director, and they´re big shoes to fill, but I think he has the ability," Hadley said.

Huffaker replaces Al Van Vooren, who was named interim director when Sando resigned on Jan. 23. Huffaker said he will ask Van Vooren to remain as deputy director.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact reporter Roger Phillips at rphillips@idahostatesman.com or 373-6615.

Facts about Steve Huffaker, Idaho's new Fish and Game director.

Age: 56.

Salary: $97,750.

Previous positions at F&G: Bureau of Wildlife chief 1997 to 2002, Bureau of Fisheries chief, 1989 to 1997, fish hatchery manager, 1987 to 1989, anadromous fish coordinator, 1986 to 1987, anadromous hatchery superintendent, 1984 to 1986.

Other positions: Currently represents Idaho on Pacific Flyway Council and Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. Active on several committees for the Western and International Associations of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Previous work experience: Fisheries biologist, hatchery supervisor and regional supervisor at Indiana Department of Natural Resources, 1970 to 1984.

Two years in U.S. Army as an engineering instructor in Ft. Belvoir, Va.

Education: Bachelor´s degree, fisheries and wildlife biology, Iowa State University, 1968.

Personal: Married 34 years to wife, Glenda. Two children: a son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in West Texas; a daughter and son-in-law and one grandchild in Nampa.
 

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