BISMARCK -- Jeb Williams is the new director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, replacing Terry Steinwand, who retired in July. Gov. Doug Burgum announced the appointment on Monday, Aug. 23.
Originally from Beach, Williams graduated with a biology degree from Dickinson State University and joined the Game and Fish Department in 1999, serving in a variety of positions including natural resource technician, outreach biologist and wildlife resource management supervisor. He became Wildlife Division chief in 2014 after serving as assistant chief since 2011. In his new position as director, Williams oversees a department with 165 employees and a budget of $92.3 million for the 2021-23 biennium.
Grand Forks Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken interviewed Williams on Tuesday, Aug. 24, his first day as department director. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
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BD: First off, congratulations on being named director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. What went through your mind when you found out you’d gotten the job?
JW: A variety of emotions. Certainly, I’m very honored to be offered that position and to be in a position that is a very important, very visible position within the state of North Dakota. We know that people base their lives around outdoor activities, and when I say base their lives, I mean they’re choosing to live in certain areas, when they could be living somewhere else in the country, perhaps.
They're choosing to make their home in North Dakota because of our outdoor activities and outdoor resources.
But yet, we also have to balance that with (the fact) that 93% of the property in North Dakota is privately owned. We have to work together with those individuals, as well, to be able to make sure that we continue to have the outdoor opportunities that we do.
I’ve been under two directors (Dean Hildebrand and Terry Steinwand), which is pretty uncommon, actually, for somebody that has had a 22-year career in fish and wildlife. The average director span across the nation is 2½ years. And for Terry to be in that position for 15 years, and Dean was, I think, right around 10 years, that’s something that doesn’t happen very often. I was able to see with both those individuals what kind of a job it is or the toughness of that job. The balancing that needs to take place in order for somebody to be successful, or at least somewhat successful in that position.
BD: Today (Tuesday, Aug. 24) is your first official day on the job. What has been on your agenda?
JW: It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. Just lots of communication with lots of different people, and then I still have the Wildlife Division chief job to do.
One of the first things on the to-do list is working with our HR Department to get that job advertised because it’s an extremely important job within the department, and we need to get moving on that and get that filled.
And then, just connecting with a lot of different people out there, and I’ve been very appreciative and again humbled by all the kind gestures and kind words that I’ve received from a lot of folks.
BD: For sportsmen and women who might not know you, what would you like them to know about Jeb Williams?
JW: Well, I guess one of the things that I would say is that I’m born and raised in North Dakota. I would never claim that I’m the guy that has the ultimate understanding of North Dakota, but I think I have a good understanding of North Dakota and the people and the landscapes and the challenges. But also, the ability to try to work through some of those challenges to meet that balance to where we can continue to have the excellent outdoor opportunities that we do.
I think that’s been something that I’ve been challenged with in the Wildlife Division, and it’s always been a focus of ours – to try to balance those interests and resources as best as we possibly can.
I think through my years of being in North Dakota and working in the capacity that I have, I’ve gained a good understanding of North Dakota and the issues that we face.
BD: What do you see as the big issues out there right now?
JW: Obviously habitat issues. We’re kind of on the downswing now in some regards, with habitat issues, as far as the number of (Conservation Reserve Program) acres.
Just the challenges associated with losing over 2 million acres of CRP and what that means to wildlife populations.
Every piece of property is made up of something a little bit different, and we certainly want the people to farm the best farmland out there, but we also want to provide opportunities and programs for those other pieces of farmland that might not be as profitable for them and where they might be looking for different options. And if conservation programs can step in to fill that void, that’s a win for them and that’s a win for people who enjoy the outdoors.
As we speak right now, we’re in right in the middle of one of the driest years we’ve ever had, really, and so the big question moving forward on that is going to be: Is that going to continue or is it going to be a one-year spell that was awful bad that may be short lived?
When it rains in North Dakota, things are a lot better than when they don’t rain and that’s in a lot of different ways and a lot of different aspects.
BD: Any other issues?
JW: One of the things that we’ve been seeing and watching for a couple of years now is the Recruitment, Retention, Reactivation (R3) issue that we’re able to see in other states. Sometimes, it’s good to be behind the curve, and we’ve been behind the curve in North Dakota with not seeing drastic declines in (hunter and angler numbers).
There have been a couple of “Check Engine” lights, though, that have gone on a little bit about seeing some of the numbers or some of the drops – if you take out the pandemic year, anyway.
I think we’re in a good situation right now. We’re not in panic mode by any means, but as an agency, we want to have that customer base to continue being able to fund those outdoor programs throughout the state in whatever way, shape or form they are.
And again, as a state agency that is funded by hunters and anglers, it’s obviously very important to us as far as maintaining that base of individuals.
BD: And then, of course, you’ve still got aquatic nuisance species and chronic wasting disease lurking on the horizon. What can be done to try to at least keep them in check?
JW: That’s the goal right there. With those issues, we know they’re not going away. They are, unfortunately, permanent issues, and so it’s a matter of trying to slow the spread and doing so in a way that adequately protects resources and water municipalities – all those different types of things that need protection, say, from an ANS standpoint.
And then with CWD, from a hunting standpoint, you try to put some of those protections in place without being too heavy regulation-minded with hunters.
So again, trying to find that balance that’s in place as far as feeling that the things that you can put in place are worthwhile and reasonable but also aren't unreasonable, either, as far as that public aspect goes.
"I love the diversity that North Dakota has, from the Badlands of western North Dakota to the Pembina Gorge and then the very northeast part of the state and everywhere in between. It’s just a really unique landscape that provides for some very unique outdoor opportunities."
- Jeb Williams
BD: How does your management style differ from Terry's or – looking even further back – from Dean’s?
JW: I think a lot of management styles over the years with agencies or businesses are learned from some of your predecessors or bosses. One of the things about Terry – and this was about Dean, too – it was a very open door policy, and that has been something that’s easy for me.
I like people, I like dealing with people and visiting with people and so that’s always been something that I want anyway.
I think it just challenges us, when you face the public like that and when you have that open-door policy, I think it sparks growth within us. I think it provides extra accountability that’s important.
That’s been my management style and that’s certainly something that’s not going away.
BD: What inspired you to pursue a career in natural resources?
JW: A love of hunting and fishing. I think I’m a pretty typical guy that originally was interested in this field when I found out that there was a field that existed that revolved around hunting and fishing. As a pretty normal North Dakota kid growing up, Friday night meant football games and weekends meant hunting.
At that point in time, I didn’t ever foresee myself in a position like this. It just wasn’t on the radar, you didn’t know what opportunities even really existed, other than Game and Fish departments or different opportunities with other nongovernment organizations.
I love the diversity that North Dakota has, from the Badlands of western North Dakota to the Pembina Gorge and then the very northeast part of the state and everywhere in between. It’s just a really unique landscape that provides for some very unique outdoor opportunities.
That’s not a secret; we have something really special in North Dakota, and if you’re somebody interested in the outdoors, I don’t know how you can’t be in love with that.