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For the week of Feb. 16 through Feb. 22, 2000

Sando cashes chips in on Idaho


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Newly hired Idaho Department of Fish and Game director Rod Sando grew up on a small Minnesota dairy farm and started hunting at a very early age. It was there that his lifelong passion for the outdoors and natural resources began, he said in a telephone interview from Bar Harbor, Maine.

"Living on a farm gets you connected to nature. I’ve been in this [resource management] business all my life," Sando said through his Minnesota inflection.

Sando, 58, went on from his youthful agricultural roots to become the regional director of the Ruffed Grouse Society’s Great Lakes region. From that, he was appointed to a succession of positions with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), first as director of forestry, then administrator and, later, chief of the department.

Sando also served as chairman of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, and as an instructor of forestry at the University of Minnesota and at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is a 3,500-employee agency that oversees management of state parks, water resources, forests, law enforcement, fish and wildlife and more. Sando left the lead position with the Minnesota agency in 1999 after eight years.

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission formally hired Sando on Jan. 27. He’ll take the helm on April 1, upon completing a spring semester teaching at the College of the Atlantic.

"I’m looking forward to the challenge," Sando said. "It’s going to be a real, vital opportunity to continue my career. I’m looking forward to living in the West, and I know Idaho’s a fabulous place.

"I’ve really been attracted to all this business through conservation. Idaho’s not known as the conservation state, but it’s managed to preserve huge resources."

Though he’s unprepared, he said, to answer questions about many of Idaho’s leading wildlife issues—such as salmon, grizzly bear reintroduction and wilderness designations—he does have an extensive background in several fields that pertain to wildlife management in the Gem State.

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Wolves are a leading issue in Minnesota, as well as in Idaho.

Minnesota has over 2,000 wolves and the state is negotiating with the federal government to have its populations removed from the endangered species list. Management would be turned over to the state DNR.

Idaho wolves could also soon be removed from endangered classification, but it is unclear whether the state Legislature will turn management over to Fish and Game.

So far, the Legislature has drawn up, but not passed, a management plan of its own. Also, there has been talk this winter in the Legislature to create an endangered species office reporting directly to the governor.

Critics charge that Department of Fish and Game personnel have been reluctant to lobby hard on the issue for fear it could have an effect on the Legislature’s approval of a proposed $4.4 million hunting and fishing fee increase. The Legislature is contemplating the fee increase this winter.

Last winter, the Legislature denied passage of a similar increase because the Fish and Game Commission fired its department director of two years.

Sando, acknowledged the sensitive political situation, but said it would be appropriate for the Legislature to hand wolf management over to Fish and Game. However, he stressed that it is the state’s decision, not Fish and Game’s, and whatever the Legislature decides is what he’ll work with.

"Oh sure [wolves] would be best managed by Fish and Game," he said. "Look at the infrastructure Fish and Game has. What it amounts to is that you have to have hands-on management like you do with any other species."

Sando said it is not surprising that wolves have done so well in Idaho following their reintroduction in 1995 and 1996. And problems with the agricultural communities are to be expected, he added.

In Minnesota, for example, wolves kill approximately 200 cattle each year. The Minnesota DNR has instituted fair compensation programs to alleviate concerns of farmers and ranchers. Also, problem animals are killed, he said.

"In a nutshell, I think we had a pretty good way of dealing with problem animals," he said.

Minnesota also experiences domestic dog deaths attributed to wolves, Sando said. This is something that hasn’t occurred in Idaho yet, but it could as wolf populations continue to expand and get closer to populated areas.

He said wolf management is really a two-sided issue. Once populations are biologically stable, the issue becomes a social one, he said.

"Beyond [biological stability], management decisions really depend on the tolerance of people," he said. "In Minnesota, people got more experienced dealing with them. They grew more tolerant.

"I would never be an advocate for extraordinarily large numbers of [wolves], but in Minnesota, we actually had far more problems with bears than with wolves."

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Sando said he realizes he’s taking over an agency with financial and credibility hurdles. He said overcoming such obstacles "should be fun."

Optimism reigned when the department’s proposed fee increase came up, and he said he plans to focus on cost reductions and efficiencies, even if the fee increase is approved this winter.

An avid bird hunter and fly fisherman, Sando said one of his missions in Idaho will be to resolve conflicts between small game hunters and the agricultural community.

"I want to engage in strong, cooperative efforts with the farmers and ranchers of the state. They have access to what a lot of [hunters and fishers] want access to."

And of his own outdoor pursuits, Sando said: "I’m going to be one of Idaho Fish and Game’s best customers."

 

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