Williams Takes Over as Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director

UM professor becomes first woman to oversee state’s wildlife, recreational resources

By Dillon Tabish
Martha Williams, the former director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Courtesy FWP

Her extensive background working for numerous state and federal agencies and departments speaks for itself. Another noticeable quality only further exemplifies Martha Williams’ outdoors acumen and explains why she now finds herself living in Helena.

“I like to be outside as much as I can,” she said recently from inside the director’s office of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

On Feb. 1, Williams became the 24th director of FWP, the state agency that oversees Montana’s revered fish, wildlife and recreational resources. Williams, a former legal counsel for the U.S. Department of the Interior and FWP who most recently taught classes at the University of Montana, is the first woman to lead the agency and takes over for Jeff Hagener, who retired in December after 12 years serving under three governors.

For an agency that has carried the burden of conserving and managing much of Montana’s most cherished resources for 116 years, FWP consistently faces criticism and scrutiny from passionate residents and sportsmen of all backgrounds.

Williams characterizes that high level of interest as a virtue.

“It’s pretty remarkable how much support and interest there is to make sure we get it right. All these different interests are focused on that common goal,” she said.

“I think we’re really lucky that people do care that much. Not everybody likes what we do, but at least people care, and that is a gift that we are aware of and have to be very careful with.”

Williams said one of her top priorities as the new director is ensuring that the agency is transparent in its actions and inclusive. In that fashion, she hopes to further develop public and private partnerships that steer Montana’s management of fish, wildlife and outdoor resources.

Another priority is unifying the agency internally and rallying the 686 full-time equivalent employees around a common vision that was recently redefined. Over the last two years, FWP staff members across Montana held public meetings gathering input on the agency’s entire mission and values. The 22-page end-result is published online and sets a course for the next decade while clearly stating FWP’s core values, such as respecting property rights and making science-based decisions.

Challenges certainly persist. Montana’s state parks are more popular than ever but funding remains stagnant and deferred maintenance keeps piling up. In late December, state officials said the parks administrator, Chas Van Genderen, was no longer with the agency after eight years. No explanation was given.

Williams pledged her full support for Montana’s state parks and hopes a new full-time permanent administrator is hired in the near future.

“Parks are critical to what we do. I feel strongly that they are an important part of our agency. I commit to supporting parks,” she said.

She described the various state parks as vital parts of Montana’s communities and portals to the outdoors.

The traditional outdoor pursuits — hunting and fishing — are also vital to Montana’s fabric, she said.

A new study shows hunters spent an estimated $324 million in Montana in 2016. Last year resident hunters spent nearly 973,000 days pursuing deer, about 902,000 days hunting elk and about 51,000 days chasing antelope, according to the study. Non-resident hunters spent nearly 165,000 days hunting deer, nearly 147,000 days hunting elk and about 7,000 days chasing antelope. According to data collected and analyzed by FWP, the average resident deer hunter spends about $72.48 per day, compared to the average non-resident deer hunter who spends about $483.55 per day. For elk hunters, the daily expenditures hit $87 for residents and $582.07 for nonresidents. Antelope hunters spend even more per day — $103.30 for residents and $661.04 for nonresidents.

FWP’s mission to preserve public access also remains paramount, Williams said.

“It’s one of the biggest issues we face. I support where we can find more opportunities for public access,” she said. “I think that’s just an issue that’s central to who we are as Montanans. And we need to continue to pay attention to it.”

She fully supports the state’s efforts to recover and delist grizzly bears, and brings her past experience working for FWP from 1998 to 2011 when the state took over management of delisted gray wolves.

Montana has outlined the prospective details of a hunting season for grizzlies if they are delisted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed lifting the federal protections for grizzlies in the Yellowstone region in March and planned to announce a decision by the end of 2016, but a flood of public input has delayed the decision into 2017.

Williams received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and her Juris Doctor with honors from UM’s law school. She spent the last four years teaching at UM, leading courses on natural resource law, public land and resources law, and wildlife law. She also co-directed UM’s Land Use and Natural Resources Clinic.

Before coming to UM, she served as the deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife at the U.S. Department of Interior, where she oversaw legal issues and litigation for the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In addition, Williams served as legal counsel for the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks from 1998 to 2011.

Williams said her background, especially teaching and working with students, showed her the importance of explaining how decisions are made, particularly involving natural resource issues, which often face legal challenges.

“So much litigation regarding natural resource issues is really questioning how decisions are made,” she said. “It seems to me the most effective decisions are those that are inclusive and when the process is transparent, which means you’re open in saying what you’re doing but also explaining why.”

Williams said she is excited to meet with FWP staff and encourage them to keep up their important work across the entire state.

“I am director because I am passionate about it,” she said. “Our employees do this because they care … Our agency is about continuing that Montana way of life but also bringing more people into the fold, getting people outside, getting people excited about parks and wildlife and fisheries and recreational resources.”

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