Biden’s Pick to Lead Fish and Wildlife Service, Who Grew Up in Baltimore County, Vows ‘Collaborative Conservation’

Martha Williams, President Biden's nominee to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pledged Wednesday to let science guide decision-making at the agency and to collaborate with government and private partners.

Martha Williams, the former director for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that wildlife conservation was a shared responsibility.

She said collaborating with state, local and federal partners, along with private citizens and industry, was one of two central beliefs she brought to the agency.

“It is with a strong commitment to collaborative conservation that we can achieve our goals,” she said.

Her other central tenet was a commitment to scientific integrity. Two Republican senators raised issues Wednesday with the agency’s scientific findings.

U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, (R-N.D.), said federal definitions of wetlands sometimes defy common sense and frustrate farmers. He asked Williams to reverse the definition on a specific tract of land in his state. Williams offered to investigate the area’s wetlands definitions.

Before the hearing, Williams won the endorsement of Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who wrote a letter to Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas E. Carper, (D-Del.), and ranking Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia on Tuesday.

In the evenly divided U.S. Senate, the support of even a single Republican like Daines gives Williams more breathing room on her confirmation vote on the floor.

Daines wrote that Williams, as a veteran of state government, was wary of federal overreach and would empower state wildlife agencies. He said she recognized the problems with the Cottonwood decision, a federal judicial ruling that members of both parties have complained makes forest management more difficult.

“She also understands Montanans’ concerns with top-down, over-reaching policies and frustrations with bureaucratic regulatory challenges like those posed by the Cottonwood decision, has witnessed and even helped facilitate tremendous, state-led, wildlife conservation successes such as the sage grouse, gray wolf, and grizzly bear recovery in Montana,” he wrote.  “I believe Ms. Williams will bring a pragmatic, balanced approach to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Daines’ support contrasted with his position on Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning.

Daines was among the strongest opponents of Stone-Manning, who also led a Montana state agency under former governor Steve Bullock (D) before Biden (D) nominated her to direct a U.S. Department of the Interior agency. The Senate confirmed Stone-Manning along party lines in September, following a lengthy and acrimonious debate.

Daines, who is not a member of the panel and was not at Wednesday’s hearing, wrote that he hoped Williams would allow the state to have primary management of the grizzly bear recovery.

But responding to a question from Sen. Cynthia Lummis, (R-Wyo.), at the hearing, Williams indicated the federal government would lead grizzly bear management in Montana.

She said state authorities should lead fish and wildlife management, unless federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act applied. Grizzly bears are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Lummis appeared satisfied with Williams’ answer on federalism but was less pleased with her response to potentially removing the grizzly bear in the Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, from the Endangered Species Act list.

Williams said she would support the long-term recovery of the grizzly population and would adhere to federal law and underlying science to reach that goal.

Lummis said grizzlies had sufficiently recovered, reaching previous benchmarks for population.

“It’s been a long-term recovery, and they are recovered,” Lummis said. “Every single objective has been met… I think what I’m hearing you say is that you’re not willing to consider delisting.”

Williams said she didn’t mean to definitively reject the idea, but disagreed that all objectives under federal law had been met. While population numbers were robust, grizzlies in the Yellowstone area have not met all five criteria needed for delisting.

Capito said she was concerned administrative action to strengthen the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which penalizes polluters for incidental harm caused to migratory birds, would add “another burdensome layer” to development, including for infrastructure construction.

Democrats on the Senate panel, including Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, asked about specific land and water management issues in their states.

Williams, who grew up on a farm in Baltimore County, told Cardin and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-R.I.), she would work to protect coastal areas and watersheds, including the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, (D-Ariz.), said the invasive salt cedar plant consumed scarce water in his state and asked about federal resources to fight invasive species.

Williams responded that invasive species work was handled across several Interior agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service. She added that she’d experienced invasive species management dealing with invasive mussels in Montana.

Williams has been exercising the authority of the FWS director as the principal deputy director of the bureau since Inauguration Day. That position does not require Senate approval. Biden nominated her to be the Senate-confirmed director last month.

Williams led the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks from 2017 to 2020 under Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, according to a biography on the FWS website.

Before becoming the state agency’s director, she worked there for more than 20 years as legal counsel, according to the letter from Daines.

Williams was deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife at the U.S. Interior Department from 2011 to 2013.