ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. >> Dozens of scientists from universities and environmental groups are pushing for the removal of the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, claiming she lacks the educational background required to run the agency despite securing Senate confirmation last year.
The concerns over the credentials of service Director Martha Williams were outlined in a letter from 100 scientists sent today to President Joe Biden and U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
Williams is an attorney who majored in philosophy, and her critics claim she does not have the science-based education that federal law says is required for the position. Government attorneys have rejected allegations she’s not credentialed, but they have not disputed her lack of a science degree.
There was no discussion of Williams’ educational qualifications during her Senate confirmation hearing. She was confirmed on a voice vote in February 2022 with bipartisan support.
The call for her resignation or dismissal comes as Biden faces growing pressure from some wildlife advocates who contend the administration has not done enough to protect endangered plants and animals from extinction.
Many of the scientists named in the letter also have been involved in efforts to retain federal protections for threatened grizzly bears in Western states and gray wolves across most of the nation.
Williams came to the Biden administration from Montana, where hunting wolves is legal. She said during her confirmation hearing that the grizzly bear population around Yellowstone National Park has recovered, putting her at odds with wildlife advocates.
The battle over her qualifications has simmered since she was announced as Biden’s pick in late 2021. The Interior Department’s solicitor and inspector general dismissed complaints over the matter, but still pending in federal court is a lawsuit that focuses on the educational requirements outlined by Congress when it overhauled the wildlife agency in 1974.
Federal law says only someone with “scientific education and experience” can be appointed director of the service.
Williams has a bachelor’s in philosophy from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Montana, according to congressional records and the Department of Interior.
She worked as an attorney at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for more than two decades, then led the state agency for three years before being named principal deputy director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following Biden’s election. During the Obama administration, she was a deputy solicitor at the Interior Department for two years.
The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to multiple emails about her qualifications. Interior spokesperson Melissa Schwartz declined comment on the letter and the White House did not immediately respond.
Attorneys for the Biden administration said in court filings that the law requires Williams’ education to be considered “cumulatively” with her experience.
“She clearly has the requisite background,” they wrote.
A spokesperson for Montana Sen. Steve Daines said today that the Republican lawmaker stood by his vote for Williams.
Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said that since her confirmation, Williams “has brought collaborative, science-based solutions to the tough problems facing our wildlife and public lands.”
Other than resigning or being fired by the president, impeachment is the only mechanism for removing Senate-confirmed civil officers such as Williams, according to Katherine Scott, associate historian in the U.S. Senate Historical Office.
The scientists calling for her ouster say they’re concerned the administration is setting a precedent by sidestepping the scientific education requirement.
They claim Williams is serving in contradiction to the administration’s own policies and ethics rules. They pointed to an assessment done by Biden’s Scientific Integrity Task Force that suggests executive branch positions should be filled by candidates with appropriate credentials and that violations of scientific integrity policies should be taken as seriously as violations of ethics rules.
The scientists include Dave Parsons, who led government efforts to reintroduce the endangered Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest; two board members and a scientist with Silver Spring, Maryland-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility; well-known biology professors Paul and Anne Ehrlich at Stanford University; and wolf experts William Ripple and Robert Beschta from Oregon State University.
With the exception of Williams, every director since the agency was overhauled in the 1970s had a scientific education, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“I see this appointment as a tipping point, where politics will forever override statutory credentials,” said Parsons, who authored the letter.
In the lawsuit challenging her confirmation, Illinois lawyer Robert Aland claimed decisions made by Williams would be “contaminated” since she was appointed illegally. Wildlife “could suffer the most serious adverse consequences” as a result, he said.
A judge dismissed the case over jurisdictional issues and did not address the dispute over education. Aland has appealed.
Aland previously sued the agency over its attempts to lift protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Federal judges restored protections in both instances, but a new proposal to lift protections is under consideration by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency is planning a new rule that could lift protections for gray wolves in early 2024.
Some of the scientists in today’s letter said the decisions on bears and wolves are up to Williams. They said her qualifications could be used as an argument in future litigation over the species.
Williams is not the first to have her qualifications questioned. Under former President Donald Trump, political appointee Greg Sheehan oversaw Fish and Wildlife for more than a year as the agency’s deputy director at a time when no director was in place.
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke unsuccessfully sought to make Sheehan acting director, but government officials said he did not have the science degree required for the position under federal law. Sheehan stepped down in 2018 and was never formally nominated.
Before Trump nominee Aurelia Skipwith was confirmed for the post in 2019, environmental groups objected in part because she had studied molecular biology and not wildlife specifically. The Center for Biological Diversity called her an “industry shill” because of Skipwith’s past work with the chemical company Monsanto.
Center for Biological Diversity government affairs director Brett Hartl said the group knew about Williams’ lack of a degree, but decided nevertheless to support her.
He said his group believed having “an outside person” serve as director would offer a better opportunity to solve deep cultural issues that have plagued the agency over the years. Hartl agreed that the law requires a science degree but said the Senate has the ultimate authority to decide who’s qualified.
Despite the early support for Williams, Hartl said his group has been disappointed with the Biden administration’s failure to replace a Trump-era rule that weakened protections for many species.
“To me, that’s the stuff she should be evaluated on,” he said. “We’ve been fairly underwhelmed thus far at her tenure.”