The Biden administration announced Thursday that it is nominating former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Martha Williams to become director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Williams will become the second major Montana appointee to work under U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
Like Missoulian Tracy Stone-Manning, who took the helm of the Bureau of Land Management last month, Williams formerly worked under former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. The first woman to lead Montana FWP, Williams managed nearly 700 full-time employees and oversaw management of more than 50 state parks when she held that post from 2017 to 2020.
During her tenure at FWP, the department responded to a number of contentious and difficult conservation issues including grizzly bear management, aquatic invasive species and chronic wasting disease. She also worked on bison issues, seeking land, whether state, private or federal, where herds could be restored without creating too much conflict with landowners opposed to bison restoration.
Prior to her post with FWP, Williams was an assistant law professor and co-director of the Land Use and Natural Resource Clinic at the University of Montana, her alma mater. She has also worked for the Interior Department before, serving from 2011 to 2013 as the agency’s deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife, where she provided legal counsel to the National Park Service and USFWS.
“Martha brings with her decades of experience, deep knowledge, and a passion for conservation, wildlife management, and natural resources stewardship,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release about the nomination. “I look forward to continuing to work with her as the Department carries out its mission to protect America’s most precious resources and as we answer President Biden’s call to action to conserve, connect, and restore the lands, waters, and wildlife upon which we all depend on.”
Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and a handful of conservation groups cheered the news of Williams’ nomination to officially lead the agency she’s overseen as acting director for the past 10 months.
“Montana’s landscapes and outdoor economy depend on our wildlife being managed fairly and responsibly according to the best possible science, which is why I am excited to see Martha Williams has been nominated to serve as Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Martha has spent her entire career standing up for our public lands and has proven herself to be a thoughtful, nonpartisan steward who works collaboratively with folks on the ground to make positive change,” Tester said in an emailed statement.
Montana Conservation Voters tweeted, “Another Montanan making us proud! Congratulations to Martha Williams on her nomination to run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her experience, smarts and commitment to protecting the outdoors makes her the ideal USFWS Director.”
Also on Twitter, Public Lands, a project of the National Wildlife Federation, described Williams as a “fantastic choice to lead the USFWS,” and the Audubon Society said the nomination “is good news for birds, people and the places we all need.”
If confirmed to the post, Williams will continue to oversee about 8,000 employees and 567 national wildlife refuges. She’ll be charged with conserving wildlife habitat and implementing some of the nation’s bedrock environmental and land management laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Pittman-Robertson Act, which distributes federal money from taxes on sporting arms, archery equipment and ammunition to states for habitat conservation and hunter education programs.
Management and protection status of wolves, which was a hot-button issue when Williams worked as legal counsel to FWP, a position she held from 1998 to 2011, will likely be a source of intense scrutiny for Williams, who represented Montana in its push for wolf delisting in the late 2000s
This summer, conservation groups petitioned USFWS to restore Endangered Species Act protections to gray wolves following the passage of legislation in Montana and Idaho aimed at sharply reducing their numbers. Last month the agency said it’s evaluating whether relisting is merited. It’s expected to issue its finding early next summer.
For the second session in a row, Montana State University’s $38 million request for a new Gallatin College building failed to make the governor’s proposed budget. President Waded Cruzado and local supporters aren’t giving up.
The agency’s announcement was welcomed by Republican officials, who’ve long sought to restore management of grizzly bears to state agencies. Environmentalists questioned whether USFWS is fulfilling the mandates of the Endangered Species Act and cast doubt on Montana’s ability to manage grizzlies sustainably.
Gov. Greg Gianforte wants to put more state money into the Healing and Ending Addiction Through Recovery and Treatment initiative, but lawmakers and mental health advocates are asking for more accountability and clarity on how the money is spent.