Sam Hamilton, ‘visionary’ Fish and Wildlife Service chief, dies after skiing

U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton died Saturday in Colorado after experiencing chest pains during a ski trip.

Hamilton, 54, became director of FWS in September and had more than 30 years of experience with the agency. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement Saturday that the Interior Department family had suffered a “great loss” with Hamilton’s passing.

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“Sam was 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,” Salazar said.

“His forward-thinking approach to conservation – including his view that we must think beyond boundaries at the landscape-scale – will continue to shape our nation's stewardship for years to come. My heart goes out to Sam's family, friends, and colleagues as we remember a remarkable leader and a compassionate, wise, and eternally optimistic man,” he continued.

Hamilton suffered chest pains at the Keystone Ski Area and later died after being transported off the mountain, according to press reports.

The Summit County Coroner said his death was consistent with an underlying heart problem, the Associated Press and other outlets reported.

Before heading FWS, Hamilton directed the agency’s Southeast Region in Atlanta, Georgia. The region comprises 10 states and the Caribbean, and Hamilton led a 1,500-person team that worked to protect hundreds of threatened and endangered species and operated 128 national wildlife refuges, according to Interior.

Interior, in announcing Hamilton’s passing Saturday, said Hamilton had provided “key leadership and oversight” for Interior’s restoration work in Florida’s Everglades.

Hamilton also oversaw efforts to restore coastal wetlands, wildlife refuges and other habitat areas that were devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the agency said.

Before heading the Southeast Region, Hamilton served as the assistant regional director of ecological services in Atlanta and as the FWS Texas State Administrator in Austin. His work with the FWS began when he was 15 years old, working with the Youth Conservation Corps member on the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi, Interior said.

Hamilton graduated from Mississippi State University in 1977 with a degree in biology. He is survived by his wife Becky, sons Sam Jr. and Clay, and grandson, Davis, who all live in Atlanta.

“We are all saddened by the loss of our dear friend and colleague Sam Hamilton. A dedicated Fish and Wildlife Service employee for more than 30 years, Sam brought more than just a wealth of experience to the job, he brought courage and outstanding leadership. The Department of the Interior will miss him greatly,” said Thomas Strickland, Interior’s assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.