Sam Hamilton dies at 54; head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sam Hamilton, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a 30-year veteran of wildlife and habitat conservation, suffered a fatal heart attack while skiing in Colorado on Saturday afternoon. He was 54.

His death at Keystone Ski Area was confirmed by the Summit County coroner's office in Colorado. Hamilton was a career Fish and Wildlife employee whom President Obama nominated last year to lead the agency.

Born in 1955 in Starkville, Miss., Samuel D. Hamilton joined the Youth Conservation Corps on the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi when he was 15 and later earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Mississippi State University. He steadily climbed Fish and Wildlife's leadership ranks through positions in the South, where he earned broad respect -- and a few barbs from environmental groups -- for attempting to build compromises on endangered species decisions.

As head of the agency's Southeast region, the slim and mustachioed Hamilton oversaw huge wetland and habitat restoration efforts on the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and he helped lead the Interior Department's campaign to restore the Florida Everglades.

Hamilton was a few months into the process of reorienting the agency to cope with the effects of climate change on animals and habitat across federal lands.

In a statement late Saturday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called Hamilton "a friend, a visionary and a professional whose years of service and passionate dedication to his work have left an indelible mark on the lands and wildlife we cherish."

Hamilton's love for the land bridged his personal and professional lives. Jay Slack, a longtime friend who directs Fish and Wildlife's National Conservation Training Center, said Hamilton would fill the down-time on fishing trips with conservation policy discussions.

The two men caught tuna, mahi-mahi and king mackerel together off Florida, accompanied by one of Hamilton's sons; they also took annual fly-fishing trips to Alaska's Tongass National Forest, sleeping in tents and catching salmon.

"Whether it was down in the saltwater in the heat, or up in Alaska with the wolves and the bears, he was in his element," Slack said.

Last fall, before an air tour of the threatened coastal wetlands of southeast Louisiana, an Interior Department colleague asked Hamilton if he hunted. "Would every day," Hamilton replied, "if it were legal."

Hamilton is survived by his wife Becky, his sons Sam Jr. and Clay, and a grandson, all of Atlanta.

jtankersley@latimes.com

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