Remarks by Retiring WMI President Steve Williams at the 88th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference Plenary Session

Remarks by Retiring WMI President Steve Williams at the 88th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference Plenary Session

Welcome to the 88th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. This year marks the 18th time, and the last time, that I will have the privilege of providing the Conference’s opening address. More importantly, we will recognize and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. But first, thank you, Sara for your welcome to Missouri address. I also want to thank Matt Dunfee, the conference organizer, Cindy Delaney, and her talented team for assisting us in this conference. As always, I thank all of you for your participation and financial support to make this 88th conference successful.

Steve Williams delivering North American conference opening remarks

In 1973, Congress passed, and President Richard Nixon signed into law, the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The 1970’s produced a slew of environmental legislation – National Environmental Policy Act (1969), Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), ESA (1973), Magnuson Act (1976), National Forest Management Act (1976), and a few others. That is pretty heady stuff for Congress to tackle in a single decade. The ESA provided for the listing of species as threatened or endangered, the designation of critical habitat, the consultation with federal agencies to protect listed species, and the development of recovery plans for listed species. I want to pause here and applaud the excellent work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff and their state partners for the many reasons to celebrate the ESA’s 50th Anniversary. At this conference, speakers will explore the roots, the implementation, the successes and failures, and the promises for the future of this landmark environmental legislation. Dave Tenny, Lowell Baier, and Collin O’Mara will address some of these issues in this plenary session and a special session will delve further into the ESA.

With deep disappointment, we saw the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) wither on the vine of the 117th Congress. This loss was in spite of a tremendous effort by our community, led by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Congressional Sportsmen Foundation. RAWA is poised for congressional action in 118th Congress again this year. I have no doubt that our community will rally around this most important bill and push it across the finish line. We will need to double our efforts and remind the current Congress of the work of Congress in the 1970’s. Those members tackled difficult environmental issues in a bipartisan manner, and today society and the environment reap the benefits of their work.

With your forbearance, I would like to reflect on my 40-year career in fish and wildlife conservation. After I received my Ph.D. degree, I embarked on a wonderful career that included work as a deer biologist and Assistant Director in Massachusetts, Deputy Director in Pennsylvania, and Secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Following these positions in state government, I was honored to be confirmed and to serve as the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For the past 18 years, I have had the privilege of serving as President of the Wildlife Management Institute. My travels have taken me from Key West, Florida to Kaktovik, Alaska; from San Diego, California to Portland, Maine; and from Mexico to Canada. In all those travels, I met with some of the finest people in the world. People like each of you who strive day in and day out to conserve the precious natural resources on which our world depends. And you do it, not for the money, but out of a deep appreciation and understanding of the importance of ecosystems and all of their inhabitants, including simple primates like those of us assembled in this room.

So, what have I learned? I learned that the view varies depending on where you stand on a mountain and on which mountain you stand. I learned that we have to work closely together and build positive relationships with one another within and among jurisdictions. We have to respect the roles and responsibilities associated with work at the state and federal level. Believe me they are very different, and you should strive for a better understanding of those differences. In 40 years, I have experienced a profession that has evolved from a command-and-control management style to public engagement in agency decision-making. I have seen agency missions expand beyond game species to include those species not hunted or fished. I have seen a recognition that all members of the public have a stake in, and benefit from, our work to conserve wild things and wild places. I have encouraged an effort to expand hunter and angler participation while calling for the engagement of a broader constituent base to demonstrate the relevancy of our conservation work.

In a word, I have seen “change”, actually a lot of change, not just in my personal career but in the profession itself. Early in my career I viewed change as a loss. A loss of what I wanted my job to be. Through the decades I came to embrace change. Change is necessary for individuals and organizations to evolve within their changing environment. We recognize the importance of evolutionary change in animals but then reject its importance in our organizations. Don’t do that! Embrace new challenges and the change necessary to meet those challenges. Don’t be afraid of losing something due to change, recognize what is to be gained by changing to new approaches, new jobs, new technologies, and more.

In closing, I am going to recognize and thank a friend of mine for some 46 years – Scot Williamson, the Vice President of WMI. We have known each other since our undergraduate years at Penn State. We started as deer biologists in New England, along with another deer biologist friend, Ron Regan. Scot started at WMI in 1994 when WMI operated under a very different business model than we do today. During the past 18 years, Scot has been an invaluable partner as WMI evolved into the organization it is today. Today WMI has highly skilled and experienced staff capable of understanding and addressing difficult resource issues. They stand ready and able to assist agencies with programmatic and administrative expertise which is tough to find outside of WMI. One of those individuals is also retiring. Chris Smith has had a prestigious career that includes 23 years in Alaska as a researcher, manager, and administrator; 11 years in Montana as the Deputy Director; and currently as an expert in wildlife policy, law, public trust, and wildlife governance. Chris has been indispensable for WMI, and it will be difficult to find his replacement. Chris, I thank you for all your contributions and I wish you all the best in retirement.

Now, it is my pleasure to announce another change. The WMI Board of Directors has selected Tony Wasley to serve as the next President of WMI. Tony has a wealth of experience in fish and wildlife conservation, served as the previous President of AFWA, and will bring a new perspective to WMI. I am proud of the WMI staff Scot and I have assembled, and Tony will find that he will be working with the most dedicated professionals who strive to enhance the conservation profession day in and day out.

I thank all of you with whom I have had the privilege to work. Thank you for your friendship, your support, your humor, and your wisdom. It is especially hard to retire from a family I have known for almost 40 years. I know I will miss the collaboration terribly, but it is time to move on and leave the reins in the capable hands of Tony, Scot, Matt, Jon, Bill, Meghan, and Ann.

Finally, thank you for the privilege of your time and thank you for your dedication to fish and wildlife conservation.

April 14, 2023