White House taps Martha Williams to head FWS

By Michael Doyle | 10/22/2021 12:17 PM EST

Martha Williams, currently the principal deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, holding the 2021-22 Federal Duck Stamp. President Biden has nominated Williams to lead the agency. @USFWS/Twitter

The White House announced last night the intention to nominate Martha Williams as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, capping nine months in which she has already been leading the agency as the administration overhauls key policies.

Prior to joining the Biden administration in January, Williams served as director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks from 2017 to 2020.

She previously was an assistant professor at the Blewett School of Law at the University of Montana. She co-directed the university’s Land Use and Natural Resources Clinic.

“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 statement.

Since January, Williams has already been leading the agency’s work in unraveling Trump administration policies on the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other hot-button issues.

“We have worked with Martha Williams for years as she has been committed to conserving our nation’s fish and wildlife resources,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “She is collaborative and will be a strong partner to the hunting and fishing community.”

Tim Preso, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Biodiversity Defense Program, added, "Since January, we have witnessed Martha’s dedication to her role at Fish and Wildlife by bringing experience, transparency, and sound leadership to the table.”

During the Obama administration, Williams served as the Interior Department’s deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife between 2011 and 2013.

She grew up on a farm in Maryland and graduated from the University of Virginia and the Blewett School of Law. She has engaged with Endangered Species Act issues for years, wearing different hats (Greenwire, Jan. 22).

In 2005, while an attorney for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Williams helped argue the state’s case in support of the George W. Bush administration’s proposal to downlist two populations of the gray wolf from endangered to threatened.

"The FWS acted within the scope of its authority, considered the relevant factors, based its decisions on the facts in the record, and adequately explained its decision," Williams wrote in a September 2004 court filing.

A federal judge disagreed and sided with environmentalists in a 2005 decision, though the gray wolf debate persisted.

Williams taught Introduction to Environmental Law, Wildlife Law, Property I, Public Land and Natural Resources Law, and Climate Law, and she examined the ESA for academic journals.

"As climate change and the dynamic nature of our human and natural world place mounting pressure on species and their habitats, we need the … [ESA] now more than ever," Williams wrote in a 2016 Fordham Environmental Law Review article. "Yet the ESA faces renewed efforts at amendment and repeal."

Titled "Lessons From the Wolf Wars," Williams’ article delved into what she called the "fundamentals" of the landmark environmental law.

"The lessons learned from the wolf wars suggest that we change the way we talk about the ESA, shifting our focus and ensuing rhetoric from delisting to species recovery," Williams wrote.

For a 2013 Environmental Law Reporter article, Williams joined co-authors David Hayes and Michael Bean in scrutinizing the role of "critical habitat" under the ESA.

Hayes has also joined the Biden administration as a White House climate adviser.

"Critical habitat designations typically have modest impacts primarily because the regulatory consequences of listing a species in the first place are so far reaching," the three co-authors wrote.

Earlier this month, Williams secured an ethics waiver to work with the nonprofit Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (E&E News PM, Oct 5).

Prior to joining the Biden administration, she served as vice president of the association, which represents 24 states and Canadian provinces on resource management and wildlife conservation issues.

Last month, environmental groups pressed the White House to nominate a FWS leader, saying the failure to do so could jeopardize regulation changes under the new administration (Greenwire, Sept. 8).

“We’re glad President Biden has finally nominated a Fish and Wildlife Service Director, a position that has been vacant for his first nine months in office,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re hopeful that Martha Williams will be able to restore scientific integrity and reinvigorate the agency’s commitment to its core wildlife conservation mission.”