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Too young, too soon

2/23/2010

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton died on Feb. 20; apparently from a heart attack while on a ski vacation in Colorado. He was 54.

Hunters and anglers have lost a great friend an ally. Hamilton loved to hunt and fish and felt a great sense of responsibility to sportsmen. I had a lot of respect for Hamilton because of that. Too many times government bureaucrats either never had it, because they don't hunt or fish or they've become too far removed from the hunting and fishing community. Sam Hamilton never suffered from either.

I remember having dinner with him at the annual Wildlife Management Institute North American Wildlife conference a few years ago. He was regional director for the southeast region of the Fish & Wildlife Service at the time. The ringing of Sam's cell phone interrupted our conversation. He quickly apologized but said he had to take the call.

"That was interesting," he said upon returning to the table. "I can't give you the details yet, but it has to do with a very significant find in your home state. It's almost unbelievable."

That find, as I and the world were to find out several months later, was the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River/Bayou DeView area of east Arkansas. Of course, the announcement rocked the conservation world, and it being in his region, Hamilton was thrust into the middle of the continued search and potential recovery of the big woodpecker.

At the time, I was the communications director for Ducks Unlimited and oversaw the production of DU's TV shows. I called Sam before the following duck season to see if he'd be a guest on a show we were going to shoot in Arkansas near the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge where the bird had been sighted.

The area is a great spot for mallard hunting. Sam jumped at the chance not only to duck hunt — one of his great passions — but also accepted because he wanted the opportunity to let duck hunters know that just because this extremely rare bird was supposedly back from extinction, its presence wasn't going to restrict waterfowl hunters from using this very popular duck hunting area.

If I remember correctly, the duck hunting was a bust. We took only one mallard in two days of hunting. However, Sam Hamilton was a great guest who spoke knowledgably and passionately about duck hunting and the ivory-billed woodpecker and how the two could continue to coexist.

Because Sam was one of the waterfowling fraternity, he was genuine and during his tenure as regional director, duck hunters continued to use the flooded timber of east Arkansas as they have for more than 100 years.

I also got to work with Sam and his staff when DU hosted the Federal Duck Stamp Art Competition for two years in Memphis, Tenn. He was proud to have the event in his region and provided any help needed that led to two highly successful years bringing the Duck Stamp message to the people of the Mid-South. Sam was a big picture thinker.

He knew if you secured more waterfowl habitat through protecting wetlands with Duck Stamp money, you'd be conserving wildlife habitat for hundreds of other species like the ivory-billed woodpecker, too. He knew and respected the role hunters played in paying for that, and he was proud to be part of that great conservation fraternity.

We've lost a great friend in Sam Hamilton.