After a turbulent three years and a two-month investigation into its leadership, Region 3 of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is again looking for a supervisor.
On Wednesday, word came down to FWP staff that Sam Sheppard was retiring from the Region 3 supervisor position, effective immediately. It was the culmination of a two-month-long inter-departmental investigation into numerous allegations against Sheppard, including that of sexual harassment. During that time, Sheppard was placed on leave from the department.
The first indication of Sheppard’s absence was during the Aug. 3 Interagency Bison Management Plan meeting in Bozeman, when FWP Operations Chief Mike Volesky traveled from Helena to attend the meeting rather than Sheppard.
During the next few months, Human Resources representatives interviewed Region 3 employees, reportedly spending up to a couple hours behind closed doors.
Then two weeks ago, FWP staff were told that Sheppard would move into the role of state bison coordinator, answerable only to the FWP director. That prompted some stiff opposition from both inside and outside the department, according to sources in the wildlife community.
The irony is that one of Sheppard’s rivals for the supervisor’s position three years ago was FWP biologist Arne Dood, a 40-year employee who at the time served as the state bison coordinator as part of his duties as threatened and endangered species coordinator. After Dood was passed over for the supervisor job, FWP headquarters pulled him out of the position, relegating him to a "Native species biologist" position in the Paradise Valley. Dood chose to retire instead. Many on the outside saw that as a vengeful action on the department’s part.
Then this week, Volesky sent out a one-line email saying Sheppard was retiring.
The anticlimactic conclusion of the two-month investigation angered sportsmen, some of whom said Sheppard should have been fired, not given a state-funded retirement.
The Skyline Sportsmen’s Association of Butte strongly opposed Sheppard’s appointment to Region 3 supervisor three years ago. With the news of Sheppard’s ousting, they now have an “I told you so” attitude.
“The sportsmen in Region 3 pretty much unanimously opposed the selection of Sam Sheppard. We told the director (Jeff Hagener) and his senior staff that Sheppard was a bad choice, that he was a bully and that the people in Region 3 were literally scared of him. The director was told that, Paul Sihler was told that. What we didn’t know then was Shepard already had a significant number of official complaints on record,” said Skyline Sportsmen member Sam Milodragovich. “They need to offer their people crisis counseling and they need to do it quickly. I have great concerns about some of (the Region 3 employees). They’ve been impacted by (Sheppard’s) actions. It can take some people a long time to recover.”
Sportsmen in southwestern Montana haven’t been happy since November 2014 when FWP hosted a panel of the three candidates vying for the supervisor’s job being vacated by 15-year-veteran Pat Flowers.
Former Region 3 biologist Kurt Alt, Dood and Sheppard - at the time, Sheppard was the Region 3 Chief Warden - spent a couple hours that night answering sportsmen’s questions about how they’d handle the role of supervisor. The public was then asked to comment on the candidates’ responses, and sportsmen assumed their input would be considered. It wasn’t.
That led to a heated meeting between the Skyline Sportsmen and FWP Chief of Staff Paul Sihler, where the sportsmen demanded better transparency in the selection process.
But FWP has never heeded that request, claiming that the public should have no say in personnel decisions. Sportsmen point to other questionable appointments and personnel decisions that Sihler and Volesky have made since Sheppard's appointment as evidence that change is needed.
Now as Region 3 prepares to select a new supervisor, sportsman are asking Director Martha Williams to be more careful about the process.
“The new director is surrounded by the people who set up this situation that caused these problems. The people around her aren’t giving her good advice and sportsmen in southwest Montana are completely frustrated with this continued mismanagement,” Milodragovich said. “We fully support our biologists, our wardens and the Region 3 staff. It’s regretful that they had to live through this nightmare. The director needs to find the people who were responsible for this and fix the whole system.”
Calls to Region 3 spokeswoman Andrea Jones were not returned by press time.