Seeking confirmation as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the former director of Montana’s state wildlife agency pledged adherence to the law, science and collaboration during a Wednesday committee hearing.
Martha Williams, the current principal deputy director at USFWS, also told the U.S. Senate committee she believes conservation is a shared responsibility.
Williams is President Joe Biden’s nominee for the director’s post. She appeared Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which will consider her nomination for advancement to the floor for debate and a final vote.
“My life is steeped in conservation. It’s what I think about, it’s what I see, smell, hear and dream about,” she told the committee. “I am a lifelong student of nature, the outdoors, fish and wildlife management, people management, and what it takes to solves seemingly intractable natural resource issues.”
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Before taking the deputy director’s position with the Biden administration, Williams served as director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks under former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. She previously worked as an attorney for FWP from 1998 to 2011 and for two years as a solicitor at the Department of the Interior. She returned to Montana to teach at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana. She was appointed to the FWP post in 2017.
Williams pointed to her experience in a variety of complex and sometimes contentious wildlife issues as she described the role she sees for USFWS.
“Wildlife and natural resource conservation rests with all of us,” she said. “From rural and remote communities to urban landscapes, private land, tribal land and public land, it is a shared responsibility. We all play roles in this important American model, and it is with a strong commitment to collaborative conservation that we can achieve our collective goals.”
Williams faced an array of questions from senators sitting on the committee. Many questions focused on conservation issues unique to their respective states, from habitat restoration in Chesapeake Bay to water in California to the spread of invasive plants in Arizona.
Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., pressed Williams on whether grizzly bears should be delisted around Yellowstone National Park.
“They are recovered, every single objective criteria has been met,” Lummis said, asking if USFWS will require additional criteria to delist the bears.
Grizzlies have twice been delisted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem only to be overturned in federal court due to issues with genetic connectivity and regulations at the state level. Williams pointed to the court decisions, saying that while populations are robust, the USFWS must also meet those other criteria.
“If confirmed, I will adhere to the law, the Endangered Species Act and the underlying science,” she said, adding that she has met with state wildlife officials in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana on how to achieve delisting criteria.
Williams frequently pointed to her experience at the state and federal levels, describing herself as a collaborator that recognized the need for support from states, tribes, nonprofits and private landowners to help conserve wildlife and maintain or improve habitat.
“These issues are hard but we are lucky that people care about them, so that we have engagement so that even if it seems tense at first, I learned how key it is to just loosen that knot and to just get conversations started,” she said.
Williams has received the support of both of Montana’s senators.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester wrote in a letter to the committee that Williams would bring “ a wealth of real-world experience and leadership” to the director’s post.
“Martha has spent her entire career standing up for Montana’s public lands and has proven herself to be a thoughtful, nonpartisan steward who works collaboratively with folks on the ground to make positive change,” he wrote.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines also wrote a letter of support, saying he believes Williams will bring a pragmatic and balanced approach to USFWS.
“Having spent the majority of her career at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and as a fellow Montana sportsman, Ms. Martha Williams knows that first hand,” Daines wrote. “I believe Montana and the country would be well-served with her at the helm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and write to you in support of advancing her nomination quickly.”
Daines’ support for Williams comes after his vehement opposition to another Montana nominee, Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning. Stone-Manning, a former staffer of Bullock and Tester, and most recently a senior advisor to the National Wildlife Federation, saw Republicans calling for her nomination to be withdrawn over her ties to environmental activists prosecuted nearly 30 years ago for “spiking” trees in an Idaho timber sale.
The committee has not yet scheduled a vote on Williams’ nomination.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.