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Groups back Bozeman biologist Mike Phillips for USFWS chief

Mike Phillips

If several biologists and groups have their way, a third Montanan could be considered for a leadership position in the Biden administration.

On Thursday, dozens of scientists and environmental organizations led by Project Coyote sent a letter asking the Biden administration to nominate Bozeman resident Mike Phillips for director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Other signatories include Bozeman journalist David Quammen, author and former Wildlife Services trapper Carter Niemeyer, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Bear Creek Council, and several university and state agency biologists.

“The Biden-Harris Administration faces monumental wildlife conservation challenges in the coming years. The sixth mass extinction of life on earth has begun, and we humans are the cause. The USFWS must provide enlightened, science-based leadership to stem the tide of extinction and protect our country’s diverse wildlife heritage for current and future generations,” said Dave Parsons, a career U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who led the Mexican wolf recovery program from 1990-99.

“With his decades of wildlife conservation experience in every region of the country, including Alaska, Mike is the right choice for the job.”

Currently serving as director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, Phillips is a wildlife biologist who played a lead role in the reintroduction of gray wolves to the Northern Rockies in the mid-‘90s. He served as Project Leader for the wolf restoration effort from its inception in 1994 until 1997 when he left the National Park Service to work with television mogul Ted Turner on endangered species issues.

He then went on to do more for Montana and its wildlife while he served in the Montana Legislature from 2006 through 2020. He also focused on legislation that could reduce the effects of climate change.

The Director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife oversees a budget of over $1.5 billion to conserve, protect, and enhance native species of fish, wildlife, plants, and their respective habitats.

In their letter, the groups laud Phillips’ extensive work with endangered species and note that his previous work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Montana Legislature has prepared him to lead a wildlife agency through challenging times.

“His demonstrated leadership, ability to coalesce diverse interests toward a common goal, and big picture vision with deep knowledge of strategic planning and implementation would serve him well in this position,” the letter said.

Project Coyote National Carnivore Conservation manager Michelle Lute said rumors were floating that the Biden administration would soon put forth a nominee, so the groups wanted to propose their choice. Calls to Phillips weren’t returned by the end of Thursday.

In January, former Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks director Martha Williams was appointed as the principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There, she has had the authority of the director, but by law, political appointees can serve in an acting capacity for a maximum of 210 days. That period has lapsed, and earlier this month, about 60 environmental groups called on the Biden administration to nominate a director.

They pointed out that the Trump administration had refused to nominate a director for two years, during which three political appointees “finalized a number of harmful regulations and policies that are still in place today, including guidance directing the Service to stop virtually all law enforcement action relating to the protection of endangered species.”

“Confronting the massive challenge of fighting the extinction and climate crises will require bold leadership at the Service, and it would be a dereliction of your duty to delay nominating an official Director any longer,” the earlier letter said.

Missoula resident Tracy Stone-Manning is the third Montanan in the running for a role in the Biden administration, that of director of the Bureau of Land Management. She faced fierce Republican opposition in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July but is still being considered.

She must get a simple majority of the votes in the full Senate to be confirmed. Sources say that should occur within the next few weeks after the budget is passed.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.