From UND 'tin huts' to helm of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Steve Williams reflects on 40-year career

Apr. 1—GRAND FORKS — Steve Williams is president of the

Wildlife Management Institute

, an organization founded in 1911 by sportsmen and businessmen concerned about declining populations of many wildlife species.

Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2002 until 2005 under then-President George W. Bush, Williams, 64, grew up in the rural Northeast. He earned bachelor's and doctorate degrees from Pennsylvania State University and his master's degree in biology from UND, which he attended from 1979 to 1981.

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

"Most of us grad students — not all, but most — were married," Williams said. "None of us had two dimes to rub together but we sure had fun."

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

This will be the first Paur Lecture since 2019; the 2020 and 2021 events were canceled because of the pandemic.

Williams, who lives near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, talked with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken about his career as a wildlife manager and his upcoming UND presentation, "Forty Years in an Evolving Wildlife Profession."

Here are some edited highlights from their conversation.

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

SW: It's been 41 years since I was in Grand Forks. It's hard to believe. We've been out to Sullys Hill (now White Horse Hill National Game Preserve) near Devils Lake. We had a meeting in Bismarck some time ago, and we rented a car and drove up there for old times sake. I spent a lot of time at Sullys Hill, but it's been 41 years since I've been to Grand Forks. I'm looking forward to it.

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

SW: I got my undergrad at Penn State, and I wanted to go someplace different. I applied to a number of colleges, and the University of North Dakota accepted me. I talked to some folks there, and it seemed like the place to go.

It's interesting — we'd never been to North Dakota, never been to the Great Plains and then, a number of years later, I ended up working in Kansas for seven years on the Great Plains. We have a home (in Kansas), as well. We're going to retire out there; our kids and our grandkids are just north of Topeka. For a kid growing up in the northeast part of the country, there's something about these wide open prairies that really kind of grabbed my heart. I just love that country.

BD: Your upcoming presentation is titled "40 Years in an Evolving Wildlife Profession." How has the profession changed since you started your career?

SW: It's changed, I think, dramatically. Back when I started — and that would have been 1985 in Massachusetts as a deer biologist — we'd tell people what we were going to do. We didn't listen to anybody.

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

BD: How has technology changed?

SW: The technology for research has just grown exponentially. I was still using a slide rule (at the start of my career), and computers were just coming into the picture.

And then telemetry. That existed then but it's so much more refined now. Drones. When I went to Penn State after North Dakota, I focused on remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems. And today, I kind of have to laugh. I thought I was cutting edge at the time. Today, the 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 focus for the Wildlife Management Institute. That's also relatively new.

SW: When I started out, we didn't really worry that much about R3. People were going to hunt. If they wanted to hunt, they had to buy a license from us. And we assumed that was just going to go along and everything would be fine.

We listened mainly to hunters and anglers and not necessarily to the public. And in that, we've seen a change. Fifteen or 20 years ago, there wasn't a state agency that had an R3 coordinator. Now, there's 30-some.

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

SW: Well, that's a great question. I'll use crossbows as an example. For a time period, we as biologists and managers looked down on crossbows. It didn't seem right to us, so we'd kind of fight the public on it. People thought poaching was going to go up and so on.

At some point, I realized this is a sociological issue, and as long as we can manage populations to meet objectives, it really doesn't matter whether you shoot (game species) with a longbow, compound bow, crossbow or rifle.

So, at least for me, I try to sort out, "What are the sociological and what are the wildlife management issues and how does that separate out?" And again, it's having the public participate more in what we do.

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

BD: As a manager both at the state and federal levels, how did politics factor into policy decisions?

SW: At the federal level, there was this underlying current of political factors you had to take into account, but I can honestly say, thinking back through this, I was never threatened or told, "you've got to come down with this decision." I never experienced that.

Certainly, I knew from a political perspective, that folks above me wanted me to come down one way or the other. But I hope I did my best to not let that interfere with the decisions that I had to make.

BD: In your three years with the Fish and Wildlife Service, what are you most proud of as far as what you were able to accomplish?

SW: Before I became the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, I don't want to get into the details, but there was a real rift between 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'd say there was no relationship. It was a terrible time for a bunch 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've got to get back to the partnerships that they used to have with the state fish and wildlife agencies."

And I worked really hard at that, and that relationship improved year after year after year, to the point where — and I hate to sound like I'm bragging — but when I when I left the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies gave me their most prestigious award, and it was because, coming from the state agencies, I knew how important they were, and I knew that the partnership had to be repaired.

BD: What kind of advice would you give UND students entering a fish or wildlife management career?

SW: Find something and become good at something that distinguishes you from other people. When I got my Ph.D., things were just starting in wildlife — remote sensing, GIS, statistics. That's what I really kind of focused on, and it set me apart from my fellow grad students. So that's what I tell them: Set yourself apart. And you can do it a whole bunch of different ways. Maybe you volunteer and you do intern work for a professor. It's not just going to class, getting good grades, taking the same class everybody does and expecting to get a job. That may or may not work for you.

The other thing I would say to undergraduates is that it's 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 get time to hunt and fish and enjoy the outdoors?

SW: I do. In fact, Monday, I'm flying down to Louisiana to hunt turkeys with some friends. I mostly hunt in Kansas. I live in Pennsylvania, but we have a home (in Kansas), and I hunt deer, pheasant and quail out there.

BD: Anything else?

SW: Living in the tin huts at the University of North Dakota, I never thought I'd have the career I've had. It's one of those, "I'd rather be lucky than good" sort of 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.

* Background: Born in Bellows Falls, Vermont, grew up in the rural Northeast.

* Education: Bachelor's degree, environmental resource management, Pennsylvania State University; master's degree, UND; doctorate, forest resources, Penn State.

* Professional: UND graduate teaching assistant, 1979-1981; Penn State graduate teaching assistant, 1981-1985; wildlife biologist specializing in research and management for white-tailed deer, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 1985-89; assistant director for wildlife, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 1989-1992; deputy executive director, Pennsylvania Game Commission, 1992-1995; secretary, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, 1995-2002; director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2002-2005; president, Wildlife Management Institute, 2005-present.

* Family: Wife Beth, two grown children.