5 officials to pace government's second-busiest rulemaker in 2015

Seventh in a series on energy and environment staffers worth watching in 2015.

Fish and Wildlife Service employees were likely drawn to the Interior Department agency by their love for the outdoors, but top FWS officials spend more time in offices and meeting rooms working on regulations than they do in wildlife refuges.

Aside from the Treasury Department's Internal Revenue Service, no federal subagency has more active rulemakings than FWS's 142, according to the biennial regulatory plan released last month by the White House. U.S. EPA has 129 regulations in the works (Greenwire, Nov. 24).

The FWS regulations include 12 deemed "significant," meaning the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has determined that the rules could have major impacts on the economy, the law or the government.


The service's rulemakings range from considering protection for central Florida's tiny Highlands tiger beetle to all government permitting and budget decisions in areas considered habitat for endangered species. Navigating the bureaucracy, legal requirements and interests of all stakeholders in proposed regulations requires the collective expertise of FWS's more than 8,700 employees.

But as the Obama administration heads into its final two years, interviews with interest group representatives as well as current and former FWS staffers suggest that Director Dan Ashe will rely heavily on five officials to carry out the service's agenda.

Robert Dreher, associate director

An experienced attorney but a FWS neophyte, Robert Dreher is the service's No. 2 official and will play a significant role in policymaking.

The newly created associate director position allows him to serve as "sort of a glorified troubleshooter," Dreher said in an interview.

In practice, that has meant coordinating with other agencies on high-profile issues like the potential listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act and combating wildlife trafficking, the latter of which took him to Ethiopia and Tanzania for two weeks early last month.

Dreher expects to work on the potential delisting of the grizzly bear as well as issues related to the gray wolf.

He's also involved in a proposal to establish a permitting process that would allow for the unintentional harm or killing of migratory birds. The goal, he said, is to give businesses clarity on compliance and legal responsibilities while also reducing the level of bird injuries and deaths.

He started at FWS this spring after spending a little more than a year as the acting assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division (Greenwire, May 27).

Agency watchers are confident that Dreher, who turns 63 tomorrow, will excel in the position.

"He is one of the most talented guys the Interior Department has," said Donald Barry, who was Interior's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks during the Clinton administration. Dreher is an "extremely smart lawyer" and a "savvy operator," he added. Barry is now the senior vice president of conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group that Dreher represented as general counsel before joining the Obama administration.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Dreher also previously worked as deputy executive director of the former Environmental Law & Policy Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, an attorney at the law firm Troutman Sanders LLP, and deputy general counsel at EPA. Early in his career, Dreher spent a decade as an attorney at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, which later became Earthjustice.

Originally from New York's Finger Lakes region, he earned a master's degree in American civilization from Brown University and an undergraduate degree from Harvard College before becoming a lawyer.

Bob -- as most of his family, friends and colleagues refer to him -- is married to a hospice nurse, whom he met in law school. They have four children.

For fun, he plays guitar in a Takoma Park, Md.-based blues band, "Cooking With Gas."

Gary Frazer, assistant director for endangered species

Of the 12 FWS rulemakings that the White House is most closely monitoring, Gary Frazer is the point man for four; only one other FWS official has as many.

One of those rules seeks to clarify regulations for "incidental takes" -- accidental killings of protected species.

Three other controversial proposals aim to revise aspects of the critical habitat designations, which place restrictions on federal actions, permitting and spending in areas deemed essential for the conservation of threatened or endangered species.

As a nonpolitical employee, Frazer worked his way up from field biologist to assistant director for endangered species, got pushed aside and then found his way back to that demanding job.

His first stint in charge of the endangered species program began in 1999 and ended badly. People who have followed Frazer's career -- which included a yearlong detail to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee -- believe he was demoted in 2004 for attempting to enforce the Endangered Species Act during the George W. Bush administration, whose work on endangered species was skewered by scientists, environmentalists and the Interior inspector general (Greenwire, Jan. 15, 2009).

Then-Inspector General Earl Devaney slammed political interference in species decisions by Julie MacDonald, the former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, in a scathing 2009 report to Congress (Greenwire, Dec. 16, 2008).

After waiting out Bush's second term as a FWS liaison to the U.S. Geological Survey, Frazer returned to the service's assistant director level in 2008, initially as head of the ecological services program. A year later, he again became its top endangered species official.

Frazer's circuitous journey through the bureaucracy and personal style have earned him the grudging respect of some conservationists and suspicion from others.

His career trajectory "does show that he has some backbone about the species," said Noah Greenwald, who is the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diveristy, a green group. He was one of the environmentalists who negotiated with Frazer to reach a landmark endangered species settlement that set a six-year schedule of species to be considered for federal protections (E&ENews PM, Sept. 9, 2011).

Despite those close interactions, however, Greenwald described him in an interview as "somewhat enigmatic," an impression shared by others.

Many wildlife advocates also lamented Frazer's role in controversial decisions like the move to delist the gray wolf (Greenwire, June 7, 2013).

His unpopular actions, coupled with his general inscrutability, are a cause of some concern among environmentalists, who questioned his commitment to protecting endangered species. He was, for instance, repeatedly described as "risk-averse."

But Defenders' Barry, who got to know Frazer when they were both working in Congress, dismissed those concerns.

"I have no doubt about Gary's personal conservation values," Barry said. "Once you've been sent into the dungeon for torture -- guess what -- you become very careful in what you say and how you say it."

Frazer couldn't be reached for an interview because he is on vacation, according to FWS spokesman Gavin Shire.

Frazer was born and brought up in a small farming community in southeastern Iowa. He earned a bachelor's degree in fisheries and wildlife biology from Iowa State University in 1977 and a master's in forestry with a wildlife specialty from Purdue University in 1981.

Frazer and his wife have two children and live in Herndon, Va.

Wendi Weber, director for the Northeast Region

Wendi Weber is an enthusiastic regulator who, some conservationists suggest, has what it takes to eventually become the director of the service.

"She is both smart on the substance and smart on the politics of what it takes to be a leader in the Fish and Wildlife Service," environmentalist Tim Male said in an interview. He is a Takoma Park, Md., council member and former conservation policy vice president at Defenders of Wildlife (E&E Daily, Nov. 18, 2011).

"Wendi seems to be extremely well-respected by her staff," added Stuart Gruskin, chief conservation officer at the Nature Conservancy (TNC). He has worked with Weber both at TNC and as an executive deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Apart from being substantively smart and focused on the work, I think she is also a great leader within the organization," Gruskin said. "Those [skills] will serve her well in whatever she does."

While Weber hasn't had to address high-profile sage grouse or wolf issues, she's won plaudits for her efforts to restore the threatened bog turtle and New England cottontail rabbit, a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection.

"I love that challenge of trying to solve the difficult problem," Weber said in an interview. "There's probably some real stinkers that you can't, but I haven't come across anything yet that I haven't been able to get to a better place."

Weber will need to employ those stakeholder management skills to continue combating white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that has killed nearly 7 million bats, and restoring the endangered Atlantic salmon -- two of the top issues she plans to address in 2015.

Her other priorities include encouraging young people and urban dwellers to experience wildlife refuges, restoring marshes, improving aquatic ecosystems and protecting large landscapes that are resilient to climate change.

In many ways, Weber is a natural fit for FWS, which she refers to as her "dream agency."

Born in Rochester, N.Y., Weber "grew up a dirty, muddy girl who got to play outside," she said. "I didn't have a good TV or video games, that's for sure."

Although she initially studied medicine at the University of Rhode Island, a zoology professor "brought me to see sea turtles during my college years, and from there, my whole life changed -- it was just amazing!" she said. "They are just like these prehistoric, majestic creatures. They lay their eggs under the moonlight. How could you not be like, I'm definitely becoming a biologist?"

Weber furthered her zoology studies on Georgia's barrier islands and in the Caribbean. Her first job after college was collecting data on sturgeon and other fish for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. After picking up a master's degree in fisheries at the University of Georgia and a short stint at the Florida Department of Fisheries, she got the call from FWS in 1998.

With Weber's experience on sturgeon issues in mind, FWS "brought me in to work with the law enforcement and make cases on illegal caviar," she explained. She then did stints with the endangered species program on the West Coast, in the Midwest and finally in the Northeast. Weber was promoted to regional director in 2011.

An avid runner, the 44-year-old Weber and her husband are raising their two teenaged boys much like she was brought up: in the woods and water.

"They have gadgets. There's no getting away from that," she said. "But we do go outside," she added, often to go hiking or camping.

Noreen Walsh, director for the Mountain-Prairie Region

In charge of FWS activities from the North Dakota oil patch to the southern Nevada desert, Noreen Walsh has managed some of the most contentious endangered species listing decisions in recent memory. While those outcomes have disappointed many, she has kept good personal ties with advocates on both sides of the issues -- so far.

Take the wolverine, for example. Many environmentalists raised concerns about the role Walsh played in the decision last summer to not protect under the Endangered Species Act the fewer than 300 wolverines remaining in the United States. That went against the recommendations of agency scientists.

Citing documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, green groups have alleged that she caved under political pressure from the states (E&ENews PM, July 31).

Environmentalists have since filed a series of lawsuits attempting to overturn the service's ruling (Greenwire, Oct. 21).

But even conservationists who felt burned on the wolverine decision have come around on Walsh.

"Before I started working with her a little more closely recently, I was frustrated with her and this region about the decision they made around the wolverine listing," said Megan Yuller, senior conservation biologist at Rocky Mountain Wild, a Denver-based environmental group. Since then, she added, "I've been pretty impressed with her with the work that I've done with her."

On the other hand, the recent decision to list the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened upset many local government officials. But they, too, are fans of Walsh.

"Noreen Walsh is an incredibly bright, articulate and hardworking woman," Paula Swenson, a Gunnison County, Colo., commissioner, told Greenwire recently.

"I believe that she has the hardest position currently in the Fish and Wildlife Service. Not only does she have the Gunnison sage grouse, she's got multitudes of others coming down the pike," Swenson said, referring to other Western species that are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. "Honestly, I wouldn't want to be in her shoes."

FWS and Walsh are already facing lawsuits from both the state of Colorado and environmentalists over their Gunnison sage grouse decision (E&ENews PM, Dec. 11).

And Congress appears poised to further complicate the situation with a rider to the fiscal 2015 appropriations bill that would ban the Fish and Wildlife Service from proposing or finalizing Endangered Species Act listings for any sage grouse species during that period (E&E Daily, Dec. 10).

But Walsh, whom FWS didn't make available for an interview, has worked her way out of similarly tricky spots in the past, according to Swenson. As the Gunnison sage grouse listing was nearing completion, all of the work Walsh had done to get local officials on board "fell apart" because her staff had discounted the efforts they had already made to protect the rare birds, the county official said.

"Noreen made a point to meet with me -- and we met in Buena Vista, so we both had to drive halfway -- and we spent an entire morning hashing through what could and what we could not do to bring the negotiations back to the table," Swenson said. "To me, that's going above and beyond the call of duty."

Walsh was promoted to regional director in December 2012 after working for four years in the Mountain-Prairie Region. In her 24 years at FWS, she has served in three other regions, as well as in the headquarters office. The first five years of career at FWS were spent as a research biologist in Fairbanks, Alaska, investigating biological issues on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Before joining FWS, Walsh earned a bachelor's degree in fisheries and wildlife biology from Michigan State University and a master's in wildlife biology from Colorado State University. She and her husband reside in the Denver area with their two daughters, and enjoy hiking and camping.

William Woody, chief of law enforcement

When poachers and traffickers evade FWS regulations, it's William Woody's job to bring them to justice.

Increasingly, that responsibility is leading him -- and the nearly 500 law enforcement officials he leads -- to look overseas.

The service's expanding global focus was set in motion last year by President Obama, who signed an executive order to combat the illegal wildlife trade that has devastated African elephant and rhino populations (Greenwire, July 1, 2013).

So far, FWS has placed one officer in Thailand -- a major market and transit point for the wildlife trade -- and is selecting agents to send to Peru, Botswana and Tanzania. The service will also deploy an agent to Beijing if the Chinese government approves the posting.

That's a major change from how FWS has operated in the past, when the service was more "case-driven," Woody said in a recent phone interview.

At the time, he was driving through Kansas' Flint Hill region, home to the densest, most intact tallgrass prairie in North America. "We'd go over to South Africa, work for a little bit, and then come back," Woody, 58, said of the old days.

But the problem with that approach is "you don't really establish good long-term contacts" that are needed to uncover and take down the "kingpins" of the illegal wildlife trade, he said.

It's no longer good enough to stop a shipment of elephant tusks and photograph them, Woody explained. "You want to get to the people who are actually doing the smuggling of the ivory."

The enforcement division -- with its long-term focus and forensic lab -- is proving itself capable of breaking up complex trafficking networks, Woody said.

He pointed to "Operation Crash," a multiagency effort to crack down on wildlife smuggling that takes its name from a herd of rhinos. The three-year-long effort has already resulted in the indictments of two South African brothers accused of recruiting American hunters to illegally kill African rhinos, whose horns they then sold on the black market (E&ENews PM, Oct. 23).

"There's no end in sight" for that operation, Woody said.

The biggest problem for the enforcement program, according to a former FWS official, is a lack of money. "Woody has been like the guy in the gap trying to hold things together because their funding is grossly inadequate, given their responsibilities," said Barry of Defenders of Wildlife, whose wife is a former colleague of Woody's. "Congress has basically denied them the resources they need to get the job done."

Woody plans to train and hire some 20 new federal wildlife enforcement agents in the coming months -- the first new class since 2011, but he acknowledged that the budget situation is "tough."

Before taking his current post in 2011, Woody was the director of Bureau of Land Management's Office of Law Enforcement and Security, where he oversaw the efforts of about 270 rangers and special agents on more than 245 million acres of BLM-managed public lands. Prior to that, he worked at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for 15 years, a decade of which he spent leading the state agency's law enforcement unit.

Woody graduated from the FBI's National Academy, a prestigious invitation-only leadership development program for law enforcement commanders and executives. He earned his undergraduate degree at Utah State University.

Protecting wildlife runs in Woody's family. His younger sister, Carol Ann Woody, is a fisheries and aquatic ecology scientist for the Center for Science in Public Participation, a Bozeman, Mont.-based nonprofit that provides technical assistance to anti-mining groups. The Woody siblings' father worked for FWS while they were growing up on a ranch outside of Albuquerque, N.M.

Now living near the Chesapeake Bay with his wife, the FWS enforcement chief has five children. His family enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking together.

Twitter: @corbinhiar | Email:

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