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For the week of  September 5 - 11, 2001


Retiree faults Fish and Game politics

Frost says current policies harm wildlife

"Right now, the commission is out of control on the predator issue. They, for whatever reason, have decided to manage for several species at the expense of predators. It’s not healthy for the department, the people or the resource."

Lee Frost, Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservation officer

Express Staff Writer

In his 29-year career with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Hailey-based Conservation Officer Lee Frost has seen his fair share of what he views as ups and downs in Idaho’s approaches to wildlife management.

Unfortunately, Frost, an outspoken maverick among his colleagues, feels like he is retiring from the department on a low note. His last day in the field was Saturday, Sept. 1.

"I’m one of those people who see wildlife as having intrinsic value in their mere existence," he said during a recent outing to stock Little Lost Lake in the Smoky Mountains with 50 grayling fingerlings. "It seems like things in the past were more thought out with more science behind them."

After 29 years working for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Conservation Officer Lee Frost, a Hailey Resident, is retiring. Express photo by Greg Stahl

Frost, 51, is fit and lean. He sat with a relaxed posture on the bank of Little Lost Lake with the Smoky Mountains’ ridges etching jagged lines against the cloud-patched sky behind him.

At the core of his current dissatisfaction with the agency he’s worked for since he was 22 are what he considers politicized approaches to wildlife management brought to the table by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission. The seven-member, governor-appointed board of officials is charged with setting policy and direction for oversight of the state’s wildlife.

In other words, the Department of Fish and Game provides science on which decisions can be founded, but the Fish and Game Commission doesn’t always base its decisions on the science provided, Frost said.

"In the past 10 years, the politics have just gotten incredible," he said. "They’ve always been there, but the way they are now is not good for the resource. That’s been real disheartening from the perspective of someone who’s working in the natural resource field."

As an example, Frost cited an otter trapping season the Fish and Game Commission adopted in May 2001. There was not sufficient biological information on Idaho otters to support a season, and the proposal was rammed down Idahoans’ throats by the commission with little public scrutiny, Frost charged.

"On paper, we (the department) did recommend it, because the commission requested us to recommend it," he said.

After publicly airing his concerns about the otter season last June, Frost received a letter of reprimand from Fish and Game Director Rod Sando that threatened his job should he continue to expose controversial aspects of decisions by the department or commission.

"Any future public comment that either harms or makes the mission of the department or commission appear controversial or presents the department and commission as being ‘at odds’ with each other will subject you to disciplinary action," Sando stated.

"As you are aware, Idaho Department of Fish and Game is in the process of rebuilding public support and acceptance for our programs after some difficult legislative and financial times…Events such as publicly airing internal disagreements or misunderstandings derail both the commission and the agency’s efforts to regain this public trust and, frankly, make my work with the commission more difficult."

As Sando indicated, Fish and Game has trod rocky roads in the recent past.

In 1999, the commission fired IDFG Director Steve Mealey on a four-to-three vote, the same count he was hired BY in 1996.

Mealey’s critics on the commission charged he was too political.

During a bitter public debate over options for salmon recovery and the potential for dam breaching on the lower Snake River, Mealey worked hard and successfully to secure support in the state Legislatlure’s House Resources Committee for a department fee increase.

The full House was on the verge of passing a fee increase bill the day Mealey was fired. After his firing, the bill was dropped. Both the Idaho House and Senate formally expressed strong support for the fired director.

Nonetheless, the Legislature’s failure to grant the fee increase stymied a cash-strapped agency that was entering tough times without a director. Mealey was fired for being too political, and the Idaho Legislature returned the favor with politics.

And that’s only a smidgen of the difficult history.

More recently, a commission-approved predator eradication plan for southern Idaho was successfully challenged in court. The idea was to conduct an experiment to examine the effects reduced predator numbers would have on southern Idaho sage grouse populations.

The plan’s critics said habitat, not predator populations, needs to be fixed for sage grouse populations to recover.

A reporter’s phone calls to a Fish and Game biologist on the topic were fruitless. The biologist said she had been asked not to speak publicly on the issue.

"Right now, the commission is out of control on the predator issue," Frost said. "They, for whatever reason, have decided to manage for several species at the expense of predators. It’s not healthy for the department, the people or the resource."

The Fish and Game Commission drew wide-spread fire last winter for a project approved for this spring and summer in the Clearwater River basin in North Idaho that was designed to give elk populations a boost. The plan targeted black bears and mountain lions, two species that prey on elk, for removal.

Elementary school children, environmentalists and Idaho citizens were outraged.

"I speak out, not against Fish and Game, but against the commissioners who propose this killing of bears and lions," Sally Maughan, president of Idaho Black Bear Rehab, said.

Frost’s complaints are step-in-step with Maughan’s. It’s the Fish and Game Commission’s apparent focus on "hook-and-bullet" policies that upset him, he said.

"I would like to see our goal for fish and wildlife in the state be more towards preservation of species rather than fishing and hunting," he said. "Obviously, it would have to take a change in philosophy, but if your sole goal is to produce to kill, it’s not managing the whole resource. All of our money, all of our manpower, goes to produce to kill."

To that end, Frost doesn’t hunt or fish, but he said hunting and fishing are activities he deems appropriate so long as management for those activities doesn’t occur at the expense of non-game species.

"Our agency hasn’t managed wildlife, per se. We’ve manipulated it. If we were managing it, we’d spend our money on improving habitat. We’re manipulating for revenue," he said.

"We’ve lost a lot of good people who won’t compromise good, sound science for politics."

Frost said the department used to take stands on grazing, logging and mining issues in the state. No more.

"Those are the kinds of things the public doesn’t see immediately, but they have a long-term effect on the resource," he said.

Despite enduring politics and management policies he did not always agree with, Frost hasn’t spent 29 years of his life working at a job he didn’t like.

"Quite frankly, I got to do things that lots of people only dream about or watch on TV," he said. "The job was very interesting. No two days were the same."

Among the best perks for this gregarious wildlife enthusiast were working with local folks to help solve wildlife-related problems.

"It’s satisfying to leave somebody with a much larger respect for the issues they’re dealing with," he said. "When it comes to natural resources, Blaine County is certainly an anomaly compared ton the rest of the state. Blaine has that quality and compassion for wildlife."

As for Fish and Game’s future, Frost said the department is in pretty good hands with newly-hired Director Sando at the helm, even if a potential turn-around in policy decisions isn’t on the immediate horizon.

"I think he’s a good director, but he’s walking right now on a tight rope at the pleasure of the commission," Frost said. "The tight rope that he’s on is trying to do what’s right for the resource and what the legislature and the governor want him to do for the resource, and these two things are incredibly divergent right now."

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.