Steve Huffaker has served with the Idaho Fish & Game Department for eighteen years. He was appointed Director in April of 2002. During that time he served as chief of fisheries as well as chief of wildlife. This interview was conducted in May of 2002.
"It's mostly about relationships."
I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into when I jumped into the fray.
It's a real interesting time. And, you know, you could either be intimidated by that or excited by that. I guess I'm the latter. I think there's a lot of opportunity to kind of get things settled back down and get back to basics. Do the good business of wildlife management that the state deserves and accept the fact that there are some challenges that are associated with that.
The thing I've tried to do and hope I can do successfully is pick out the common attributes that led to the successes. And there are some that are obvious in successful programs; positive attitude, having roles right, so we let the people with a lot of talents express those talents and do what they do well and put people in the positions where they can succeed and maybe shelter them a little bit
It's mostly about relationships. The directors I've seen that are successful and really do a great job identify well with the resource and with the professionals in the agency and with all the constituents you deal with. So that's what I'll try to do.
"A lot bigger job than it used to be."
In thirty two years it's changed a lot. When I first started, really the only people who got very involved with fish and wildlife issues were hunters and fishermen. Now with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and out here in the west with all the public land issues, it's no longer just about hunters and fishermen.
It's about everyone who is affected by the actions of the agency and the wildlife of the state. So it's a lot bigger job than it used to be.
Fish and Game went from the sports page to the front page here some time ago. They're not simple issues, and each one brings its own constituency and each of those constituencies are very, very emotionally and financially involved in the outcome.
"It's no longer enough just to be right"
It's very traumatic to have things happen they way they did. So it takes a little while to get settled down, and now we're ready to move on. My goals for the future are to increase our effectiveness at being the voice for Idaho's wildlife.
The agency, the personnel are all very, very good at what they do. They're all experts in their field, and you very seldom see them off the mark technically. They're usually right on with what's going on with the wildlife.
But this day and age with all the changes that have occurred with constituencies and feelings about wildlife from a wide variety of interest groups, it's no longer enough just to be right about what's best for wildlife and we have to be right and effective. And effectiveness a lot of times is about credibility.
Once we get the credibility up to the level it needs to be with the elected officials and the constituency groups, then we can reach what my ultimate goal with the agency is, which is to have it be the top one in the country. We can get there.
"The politics of issues rather than the politics of parties."
I talk to tremendous numbers of people who are concerned about wildlife. And most of them have very strong opinions, and most of them are different. If a politician wins a margin of 60% in an election, it's a landslide. If we have 20 or 30% of the people that don't think we're doing things the way that they would like to see them, it's a disaster!
Politics has always been involved in Fish and Game. Politics is why the Fish and Game agency was created through public initiative in 1938. It was to get the partisan politics out of it.
Wildlife management has always had and will always have a lot of non-biological consequences, a lot of social consequences. And any time you're dealing with social issues, you're dealing with politics. I don't think it's realistic that we'll get politics out, particularly not today the way endangered species and habitat protection involve such a wide variety of people. My hope is that the politics can be the politics of issues rather than the politics of parties.
"We are looking at new funding sources."
Wildlife belongs to the state of Idaho and all its people, but the hunters and fishermen are the only ones paying for it.
Fish and wildlife agencies are funded the same way they were funded in the early 1900's.
Nongame wildlife and endangered species is a larger and larger part of what we do and what we're expected to do on behalf of not just hunters and fishermen but all the citizens; yet there's no real good mechanism to pay for that.
It's not realistic to expect the hunters and fishermen to eagerly leap up to the plate and pay more out of their pocket for all the additional things that have been added on as responsibilities of fish and game agencies.
Some folks think it would be a reasonable thing for the state of Idaho, through some general tax measure or new funding initiative, to come up with part of the bill. And then there are others, the traditional users, who say we don't want that because we don't want all the associated politics.
But all our money right now is appropriated through the Legislature anyway, so in my view I don't see how having some general tax revenue would change very much.
"I'm confident it's going to work out"
We're really kind of contractors for the people to give decision makers the best information we can give them about the status of the wildlife, and what they really need and we're still doing that 110%.
At the end of the day, when I'm done with it, I want this to be a model for state agencies in the state of Idaho and a model for fish and wildlife agencies across the country. And I think we have all the capability of doing that.
We've got great people, we've got good support, I think we are going to need more money if we're going to fulfill all the expectations that people have of us. But we'll continue to be professional and do our very best. And I'm confident that it's going to work out and we will be one of the best agencies in the country.