Scientists question qualifications of US wildlife director

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Dozens of scientists from universities and environmental groups are pushing for the ouster of the US Fish and Wildlife Service chief, claiming she lacks the required educational background to run the agency despite receiving confirmation from the Senate received.

Concerns about Services Director Martha Williams’ testimonies were spelled out in a letter from 100 scientists sent to President Joe Biden and US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on Wednesday.

Williams is an attorney with a major in philosophy, and her critics claim she does not have the scientifically sound training that federal law requires for the position. Prosecutors have dismissed allegations that she has no credentials, but they have not denied her lack of a science degree.

During her Senate confirmation hearing, there was no discussion of Williams’ educational credentials. She was confirmed in a vote in February 2022 with bipartisan support.

The call for her to resign or be fired comes as Biden faces growing pressure from some wildlife advocates who claim the government hasn’t done enough to protect endangered plants and animals from extinction.

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Many of the scientists named in the letter have also been involved in efforts to maintain federal protections for threatened grizzly bears in western states and gray wolves in most of the country.

Williams came to the Biden administration from Montana, where hunting of wolves is legal. She said during her confirmation hearing that the grizzly bear population around Yellowstone National Park has recovered, which put her at odds with animal rights activists.

The battle for her qualifications has simmered since she was announced as Biden’s pick in late 2021. The Interior Department’s attorney and inspector general dismissed complaints on the matter, but a lawsuit remains pending in federal court centered on educational requirements set by Congress when in 1974 the Wildlife Agency was overhauled.

Federal law states that only someone with “academic training and experience” can be appointed director of the service.

Williams has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Montana, according to congressional filings and the Interior Department.

She worked as an attorney in the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for more than two decades and then headed the state agency for three years before being named senior assistant director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service following Biden’s election. During the Obama administration, she was an assistant attorney at the Department of the Interior for two years.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to multiple emails regarding their qualifications. Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to 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 William’s education to be considered “cumulative” with her experience.

“She clearly has the background required,” they wrote.

A spokesman for Montana Sen. Steve Daines said Wednesday that Republican lawmakers stand by his vote for Williams.

Montana’s U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat, said that since her confirmation, Williams has brought “collaborative, science-based solutions to the difficult problems facing our wildlife and public lands.”

The scientists calling for her removal say they fear the government is setting a precedent by bypassing science education requirements.

They allege that Williams is serving the government in contravention of its own policies and codes of ethics. They pointed to an assessment conducted by Biden’s Scientific Integrity Task Force, which suggests that positions in the executive branch should be filled by candidates with appropriate credentials and that violations of scientific integrity guidelines should be taken as seriously as violations of ethics rules .

Scientists include Dave Parsons, who led government efforts to reintroduce the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest; two board members and one scientist from Silver Spring, Maryland-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility; the well-known biology professors Paul and Anne Ehrlich at Stanford University; and Oregon State University wolf experts William Ripple and Robert Beschta.

With the exception of Williams, every director has had a science education since the agency’s restructuring in the 1970s, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“I see this appointment as a tipping point where policy will forever override statutory mandates,” said Parsons, who authored the letter.

In the lawsuit challenging her confirmation, Illinois attorney Robert Aland alleged that Williams’ decisions were “contaminated” because she was illegally appointed. Wildlife “could suffer the most serious adverse consequences,” he said.

A judge dismissed the case on jurisdictional issues and did not address the dispute over education. Aland has appealed.

Aland previously sued the agency over its attempts to remove protections for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Federal judges restored protections in both cases, but a new proposal to remove protections is under consideration by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency is planning a new rule that could remove protections for gray wolves in early 2024.

Some of the scientists in Wednesday’s letter said decisions about bears and wolves rest with Williams. They said their qualifications could be used as an argument in future litigation over the species.

Williams isn’t the first to question her qualifications. Under former President Donald Trump, political appointee Greg Sheehan led Fish and Wildlife as the agency’s deputy director for more than a year, at a time when no director was in office.

Former Home Secretary Ryan Zinke tried unsuccessfully to make Sheehan assistant director, but government officials said he did not have the science degree required for the position under federal law. Sheehan resigned in 2018 and was never officially nominated.

Before Trump’s nominee Aurelia Skipwith was confirmed to the post in 2019, environmental groups protested in part because she studied molecular biology and not specifically wildlife. The Center for Biological Diversity called her an “industry shill” because of Skipwith’s previous work at chemical company Monsanto.

The government director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Brett Hartl, said the group was aware of Williams’ lack of a degree but chose to support her nonetheless.

He said his group believes an “outside person” as director would provide a better opportunity to address 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 ultimate authority to decide who qualifies.

Despite early support for Williams, Hartl said his group was disappointed by the Biden administration’s failure to replace a Trump-era rule that weakened protections for many species.

“For me, that’s the stuff she should be measured against,” he said. “We’ve been pretty underwhelmed so far in her tenure.”

Brown reported from Billings, Montana.

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