Sam Sheppard

Sam Sheppard

Gazette file photo

The supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman’s Region 3, Sam Sheppard, has retired after less than three years on the job.

Sheppard’s retirement was announced in a short email from chief of Operations Mike Volesky that was sent to Region 3 wardens on Wednesday. The Billings Gazette obtained a copy of the email from the warden’s union representative, Sam Christiansen, who is a labor specialist for the National Fraternal Order of Police.

“Everyone is happy he’s gone,” Christiansen said. “But they wish he would have been terminated instead. We wanted blood in the water, but it’s good that he’s no longer there.”

Volesky would provide no further details on the retirement other than to say, “There were some personnel issues involved, but I’m not going to comment.” 

A voicemail left for Sheppard seeking comment was not returned. A second attempt to reach him found the number disconnected.

Chain of events

Sheppard’s retirement is the latest in a string of FWP administrative changes that have altered leadership within the agency. 

In the past year alone the department has dismissed its Montana State Parks chief, and paid him a settlement amount the department is unwilling to reveal to the public; demoted the Fisheries Bureau chief, who then left the agency; demoted its chief law enforcement officer while keeping his pay the same and placed another candidate in the position. 

Sheppard’s retirement also comes on the heels of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock clashing with the head of the State Parks and Recreation Board, Tom Towe, who was dismissed for taking a stance opposite of the governor on a parks bill before the last Legislature.

Worked up

Sheppard, a Montana native, had worked his way up from the enforcement side. Before his promotion to supervisor, Sheppard was the Region 3 warden captain.

When Sheppard's promotion to supervisor was announced in 2014, four state sporting groups complained to FWP's administration, saying someone with a biology background should have been hired. The groups also questioned questioning the hiring process, saying it was rigged to favor Sheppard.

The southwestern Montana district is known as one of the toughest in the state because of the variety of hot-button issues it deals with, everything from species like grizzly bears and wolves, to diseased elk and the threat they pose to cattle ranches in the area.

That tension extended to relations inside the Region 3 office. In a 2015 letter from Region 3 warden Jennifer Knarr to fellow wardens, a copy of which was obtained by The Billings Gazette, she described a Bozeman workplace fraught with tension between wardens and supervisors. In the letter she warned other wardens to be careful about what they wrote, and to record any conversations with superiors to protect themselves from retaliation after she said one of her emails was forwarded to supervisors.

"She complained about her supervisor (Sam Sheppard) in Bozeman to me specifically," said Joe Kambic, a Region 2 warden who is their union representative. "She was having a tough time. She reached out to the union for help."

He passed her complaints on to then-director Jeff Hagener and then-chief of Enforcement, Tom Flowers.

Flowers said he met with Knarr and her husband, fellow warden Joe Knarr, about their complaints in October 2015, then passed the issue on to Human Resources.

“I beat myself up almost every day for not taking a different tack on that,” Flowers said.

"It probably was handled wrong," Kambic said.

In March 2016, Region 3 was rocked when Jennifer Knarr shot her husband along with her 6-month-old son before killing herself at the family’s Belgrade home. At the time, Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said he had spoken with family members who said Jennifer Knarr had been battling post-partum depression.

Note to staff

Stung by the double homicide and suicide, Flowers wrote an email to the division’s staff in 2015.

“Coupled with this, and in the last couple of years, the Enforcement Division has encountered some very challenging and debilitating situations,” Flowers wrote. “As a Division we are faced with (but more importantly have the ability to make) a choice. Do we resign ourselves to these difficulties? Or do we coalesce and become stronger as a unit? How we all react, how we interact with each other, how we adjust and how we portray our professionalism will define who we are in the future. As we have faced increasing scrutiny from outside interests, our resolve has been tested. How we survive this will be our legacy for some time to come.

“Should we fail at this, we will be haunted for much longer…”

The email went on to criticize any wardens who may have pointed fingers at other personnel over the murder-suicide calling it unethical, unprofessional and that such conduct would not be tolerated.

It was Flowers who was removed from his position as chief of law enforcement in January, a division he had been hired to heal. He was replaced by Dave Loewen, who had filed a grievance over the agency’s hiring of Flowers as chief, a job which he sought and eventually won.

This was after FWP Director Jeff Hagener had retired in December. Gov. Bullock appointed Martha Williams to replace Hagener. She was approved by the Legislature in April.

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Martha Williams

Williams

Williams told the Flathead Beacon last month, “One of my goals is to unify the agency and look forward, and in moving forward to really value all employees.”

Region 3 kerfuffle

Other employees had also complained about the Region 3 work environment. According to Christiansen, the wardens’ union representative, another complaint was lodged with FWP officials in July. Following that grievance, more than 20 people from the region were interviewed by FWP’s Human Resources division.

Around the same time Sheppard was placed on administrative leave, according to three FWP sources who feared going on the record out of concern about reprisals.

“We would never comment on administrative leave; that's a personnel issue,” said Volesky, FWP’s operations chief. But he did note that a series of FWP employees will be acting supervisors until Sheppard's position is filled.

The gathering

Last week, FWP director Williams and Volesky gathered Region 3 staff to report that Sheppard was going to be reassigned to a newly created state bison coordinator position, sources said. That prompted an outcry from some Bozeman personnel, in part because FWP had eliminated the position in 2015 and suggested demoting the bison expert at the time, Arnold Dood, a veteran agency biologist. Rather than take the demotion, Dood retired.

Christiansen said the proposed reassignment angered some of his union members because Sheppard would still be involved with many of Region 3’s staff, since most of the state’s bison issues are located in that area of southwestern Montana, which abuts Yellowstone National Park.

“My view is always to work with management and solve issues rather than complain,” Christiansen said. But that’s been difficult since director Williams has yet to meet with him, he added.

“Sam Sheppard is the first name I heard since those guys signed with us” a year and a half ago, Christiansen said. Prior to that, the wardens were represented by the Montana Public Employees Association before a caustic break with that group.

Volesky said Sheppard had been reassigned to his new position for a short time before he announced his retirement effective immediately. There was no settlement involved, Volesky added.

Looking ahead

Flowers has challenged his demotion from chief of law enforcement in district court in Helena, although he continues to work for the agency’s investigative division. He still hopes to get his old position back and finish a job he started — trying to smooth relations between the enforcement division and management.

It was a task Hagener was assigned to deal with when Gov. Bullock asked him to return as FWP director in 2012.

“When I interviewed with Gov. Bullock and (then-chief of staff) Tim Burton to come back (in 2012), they told me that one of the critical issues they saw with the agency was the enforcement division,” Hagener testified in the Board of Personnel Appeals hearing. “They had what you might call heartburn with the enforcement division. They said, ‘Jeff, you need to do what you can to bring them back into the agency … and be a positive force.’”

Flowers was Hagener’s pick for chief of law enforcement to heal the division, but FWP did not challenge Flowers’ removal in the decision handed down by the Board of Personnel Appeals investigator, an act that left Flowers feeling abandoned by his own department.

Instead, after Hagener had retired, three FWP administrators (including Volesky) who were serving as acting directors moved Loewen from Region 3 warden sergeant into the chief’s position. They also could have installed Loewen as assistant chief or challenged the decision to remove Flowers.

Despite all of the hassle and heartbreak, Flowers wants the chief’s job back.

“I think there’s a bigger problem, and if I go away, it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.

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