From UND ‘tin huts’ to head of US Fish and Wildlife Service, Steve Williams looks back on 40-year career – Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS – Steve Williams is president of the Wildlife Management Institute, an organization founded in 1911 by sportsmen and businessmen concerned about the declining populations of many wildlife species.

Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service from 2002 to 2005 under President George W. Bush, Williams, 64, grew up in the rural northeast. He earned a bachelor’s and doctoral degree from Pennsylvania State University and his master’s degree in biology from UND, which he attended from 1979 to 1981.

Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute.

Contributed / Steve Williams

Williams and his wife, Beth, both earned master’s degrees from UND, living in married student housing known as “tin huts”. He studied at such faculties as Professor Emeritus Bob Seabloom, who was his advisor, and mentions Terry Steinwand, who retired last summer as director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and Randy Kreil, former head of wildlife for Game and Fish, among his friends and classmates at the UND graduate school.

“Most of us graduate students — not all, but most — were married,” Williams said. “Neither of us had two cents to rub together, but we had a great time.”

Williams will be the keynote speaker at the Glenn Allen Paur Lecture, scheduled for 12:20 p.m. on Friday, April 8, in the Small Ballroom of the UND Memorial Union. The Wildlife Society’s UND Chapter is hosting the conference in honor of Glen Allen Paur, a UND biology student who died in a 1978 boating accident while working on a research project just days after the graduation.

This will be the first Paur Conference since 2019; the 2020 and 2021 events have been canceled due to the pandemic.

Williams, who lives near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, spoke with Herald outdoor writer Brad Dokken about his career as a wildlife manager and his upcoming UND presentation, “Forty Years in the an evolving wildlife profession”.

Here are some edited highlights of their conversation.

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Steve Williams delivers a keynote address in March 2022 at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Spokane, Washington.

Contributed / Steve Williams

BD: When was the last time you were in Grand Forks and on the UND campus?

SW: I have been in Grand Forks for 41 years. It’s hard to believe. We went to Sullys Hill (now White Horse Hill National Game Preserve) near Devils Lake. We had a meeting in Bismarck a while ago, and we rented a car and drove there as a souvenir of the good old days. I’ve spent a lot of time in Sullys Hill, but it’s been 41 years since I’ve been to Grand Forks. I can not wait to be there.

BD: Growing up in the Northeast, how did the road take you to Grand Forks and UND?

SW: I graduated from Penn State and wanted to go somewhere different. I applied to several colleges and the University of North Dakota accepted me. I spoke to people there, and it seemed like the place to go.

It’s interesting – we had never been to North Dakota, never to the Great Plains and then, a few years later, I ended up working in Kansas for seven years on the Great Plains. We also have a house (in Kansas). We are going to retire there; our children and grandchildren are just north of Topeka. For a kid growing up in the northeast of the country, there’s something about those vast open grasslands that really grabbed my heart. I love this country.

BD: Your next presentation is called “40 Years in an Evolving Wildlife Profession”. How has the profession evolved since the beginning of your career?

SW: He has changed, I think, dramatically. Back when I started – and that was in 1985 in Massachusetts as a deer biologist – we were telling people what we were going to do. We didn’t listen to anyone.

Now public participation is a part of every state fish and wildlife agency and it really is a much better approach.

BD: How has technology evolved?

SW: Technology for research has just grown exponentially. I was still using a slide rule (early in my career), and computers had just come on the scene.

And then telemetry. It existed then but it is so much more refined now. Drones. When I went to Penn State from North Dakota, I focused on remote sensing and geographic information systems. And today, I feel like laughing a little. I thought I was cutting edge at the time. Today, technology is all over my head, but what we can do with remote sensing and geographic information systems is just phenomenal. From a technology analysis perspective, it’s just grown and grown and grown.

BD: “R3” – the effort to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters and anglers – is a priority for the Wildlife Management Institute. It’s also relatively new.

SW: When I started, we didn’t really care about R3. People were going hunting. If they wanted to hunt, they had to buy a license from us. And we assumed that was going to continue and everything would be fine.

We listened primarily to hunters and anglers and not necessarily to the public. And in that, we have seen a change. 15 or 20 years ago, there was not a state agency that had an R3 coordinator. Now there are about thirty.

BD: I’ve always heard that fish and wildlife management is as much social as it is biological. As a veteran manager, how do you balance the two?

SW: That’s an excellent question. I will use crossbows as an example. For a time, as biologists and managers, we despised crossbows. It didn’t feel right to us, so we were kind of fighting the public about it. People thought poaching would increase and so on.

At some point I realized this was a sociological problem, and as long as we can manage populations to achieve the goals, it doesn’t matter if you’re shooting (game species) with a longbow, a compound bow, crossbow or rifle.

So at least for me, I’m trying to sort out, “What are the sociological issues and what are the wildlife management issues and how does that separate?” And again, it’s about getting the public more involved in what we do.

It’s biology, it’s sociology, but there is also a political component, an economic component.

BD: As a manager at the state and federal levels, how has politics been factored into policy decisions?

SW: At the federal level, there was this undercurrent of political factors that had to be taken into account, but I can honestly say, looking back, that I was never threatened or told, “You have to make this decision. “I’ve never experienced that.

Granted, I knew from a political standpoint that the people above me wanted me to come down somehow. But I hope I did my best not to let that interfere with the decisions I had to make.

BD: In your three years with the Fish and Wildlife Service, what are you most proud of in terms of what you’ve been able to accomplish?

SW: Before I became director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, I don’t want to go into detail, but there was a real divide between the state fish and wildlife agencies and the Fish and Wildlife Service. I mean, it was bad. I wouldn’t say the relationship was broken, I would say there was no relationship. It was a terrible time for a lot of reasons.

So when I interviewed for the job, I remember talking to the Office of Presidential Personnel, and I said, “Here’s what I see as the biggest problem for the Fish and Wildlife Service. : they need to get back to the partnerships that they used to have with state fish and wildlife agencies.

And I worked really hard for that, and that relationship got better year after year, to the point where – and I hate to sound like I’m bragging – but when I left the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies gave me their highest award, and it was because, coming from state agencies, I knew how important they were and I knew the partnership needed fixing.

BD: What kind of advice would you give to UND students embarking on a career in fish or wildlife management?

SW: Find something and get good at something that sets you apart from others. When I got my PhD, things were just getting started in wildlife – remote sensing, GIS, statistics. That’s what I really focused on, and it sets me apart from my fellow graduate students. So that’s what I tell them: Stand out. And you can do it in different ways. Maybe you volunteer and do intern work for a professor. It’s not just about going to class, getting good grades, taking the same course as everyone else and hoping to get a job. It may or may not work for you.

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Steve Williams (left) and his son, Matt, mark the end of a successful 2021 woodcock hunt near Berkshire, Massachusetts. Steve Williams will be the keynote speaker at the Glenn Allen Paur Lecture, scheduled for 12:20 p.m. Friday, April 8, at the UND Memorial Union Small Ballroom.

Contributed / Steve Williams

The other thing I would say to undergraduate students is that it is very important to consider getting at least a master’s degree. I’ve counseled a lot of kids and they hate to hear that, but I’m not going to lie to them and tell them it’s not important, because it is.

BD: Do you have time to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors?

SW: I do. In fact, on Monday, I’m flying to Louisiana to go turkey hunting with some friends. I mainly hunt in Kansas. I live in Pennsylvania, but we have a house (in Kansas) and I hunt deer, pheasant and quail there.

BD: Anything else?

SW: Living in the tin huts of the University of North Dakota, I never thought I would have the career I had. It’s one of those “I’d rather be lucky than good” things because I was in the right place at the right time for a lot of things. I have no regrets.

  • Position: President of the Wildlife Management Institute.
  • Age: 64.
  • Context: Born in Bellows Falls, Vermont, grew up in the rural northeast.
  • Education: BS, Environmental Resource Management, Pennsylvania State University; master’s degree, UND; Ph.D., Forest Resources, Penn State.
  • Professional: teaching assistant graduated from the UND, 1979-1981; Penn State Graduate Teaching Assistant, 1981-1985; wildlife biologist specializing in white-tailed deer research and management, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 1985-89; assistant director for wildlife, Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife, 1989-1992; deputy executive director, Pennsylvania Game Commission, 1992-1995; Secretary, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, 1995-2002; Director, US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2002-2005; President, Wildlife Management Institute, 2005-present.
  • Family: Married Beth, two adult children.

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