U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed

As part of an effort to organize the federal government more efficiently, the U.S. Congress merged the Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey to form the Fish and Wildlife Service in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Summary of Event

In an effort to organize the government more efficiently according to functions, the U.S. Congress on July 1, 1940, merged the Bureau of Fisheries from the Department of Commerce and the Bureau of Biological Survey from the Department of Agriculture into the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department. This was somewhat unusual, because the trend had long been to divide and expand government bureaucracies instead of consolidating them for greater efficiency and less duplication of effort. The work done in the field by the agencies involved continued almost exactly as it had before consolidation. [kw]U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed (July 1, 1940)
[kw]Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed, U.S. (July 1, 1940)
[kw]Wildlife Service Is Formed, U.S. Fish and (July 1, 1940)
Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S.
Bureau of Fisheries, U.S.
Bureau of Biological Survey, U.S.
[g]United States;July 1, 1940: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed[10240]
[c]Organizations and institutions;July 1, 1940: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed[10240]
[c]Environmental issues;July 1, 1940: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed[10240]
[c]Government and politics;July 1, 1940: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Formed[10240]
Baird, Spencer Fullerton
Merriam, Clinton Hart

The Bureau of Fisheries originated as the U.S. Fish Commission by act of Congress in 1871. Spencer Fullerton Baird, director of the National Museum and assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was the key person behind the creation of the Fish Commission and served as its first commissioner. Baird was in the habit of spending his summers along the New England coast, where he noticed a pattern of gradual decrease in the number of the fish he was accustomed to catching. Inquiries among local fishermen confirmed what he had suspected.

Spencer Fullerton Baird.

(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce)

It was decided that a commission would be appointed to discover the cause of the problem and attempt to correct it in an expedient manner. No money was available for the commission, so Baird agreed to serve without salary and furnished office space in his own home. The chairman of the appropriations committee refused Baird’s request for money to rent offices for fear that a new government bureaucracy would get started. Nevertheless, the commissionership eventually became a salaried position, and in 1903 the U.S. Fish Commission was renamed the Bureau of Fisheries in the Department of Commerce. Its duties included the systematic investigation of reasons for the decrease of commercial food fish in the coastal and inland waters of the United States. The bureau studied fish migratory patterns and investigated the effects of pollution on the fishing industry. Fishing;commercial

The bureau also established federally operated fish hatcheries and began propagating freshwater food fish in the lakes and rivers of the United States. This project was later expanded to the coastal areas to include marine fish, shellfish, and lobsters. Methods of storing and processing fish were compared, and improvements in fishing methods and equipment were suggested. In 1906, responsibility for Alaskan salmon fisheries and fur seals was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Bureau of Fisheries. The bureau protected certain Alaskan fur-bearing animals, sea lions, and walruses and also collected whaling data.

The Bureau of Biological Survey began as the Division of Entomology, later called Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1885. Headed by Clinton Hart Merriam, the survey investigated the interrelationships of birds and agriculture and the relationship of mammals to agriculture and forestry. The work was subdivided into four areas: wildlife research, regulation of game laws, refuge management, and predator and rodent control.

The Biological Survey introduced new techniques for studying wildlife based on the use of the cyclone trap, which soon demonstrated that there were many more animal species in North America than anyone had imagined. The bureau also began mapping the United States according to flora and fauna. It studied the relationship between the geographic distribution of specific plants and animals and the climates of given regions. In addition, the bureau operated the federal bird refuge system and large game preserves, a responsibility eventually transferred to the U.S. Forest Service. The government purchased marshlands for bird refuges. Farmers and ranchers welcomed the bureau’s work in controlling rodents and predators that destroyed their crops and livestock. The bureau also sought to control rabies.


The 1940 merger of the two bureaus into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continued and enlarged the work of conservation begun by the bureaus’ founding leaders, and the importance of the Fish and Wildlife Service has grown steadily ever since. One vehicle for the organization’s growth has been the federal grants-in-aid program to the states for wildlife and fish restoration projects.

Soon after World War II, the service’s Office of Foreign Activities became involved in international fishery projects, working with the State Department to help negotiate and administer international fishery agreements. Members of the Fish and Wildlife Service began attending international conferences on fisheries and serving on international fishery commissions. Members also administered educational programs in foreign countries to share the results of their experience and research.

Eventually, an organizational distinction was made between commercial fisheries and sport fish and game. In 1970, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was transferred to the Commerce Department under the name of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife remained in the Interior Department under the name of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The basic goals of the service remained what they had always been: to ensure that the population of the fisheries is high enough to fulfill the needs of the human population and to protect the fisheries from the destruction that overuse can cause.

Under the Endangered Species Acts of 1966 and 1973, the Fish and Wildlife Service became responsible for implementing the acts’ provisions. The service acquired habitats for endangered species and sought to restore them. In 1975, the service began evaluating the impacts on fish and wildlife of offshore development and oil spills. The service also conducts aerial and ground surveys of migratory birds and seeks to protect waterfowl production areas, sometimes setting up nets and barriers to prevent human incursions during mating and birthing seasons.

In addition to its programs for conservation and preservation, the service has produced many valuable studies of American natural history. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S.
Bureau of Fisheries, U.S.
Bureau of Biological Survey, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Cameron, Jenks. The Bureau of Biological Survey: Its History, Activities, and Organization. 1929. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1974. Detailed history of the Bureau of Biological Survey and how it conducted its work in the early twentieth century. Includes the texts of key laws relating to birds and wildlife in an appendix.
  • Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber, and Daniel C. McCool. Staking Out the Terrain: Power and Performance Among Natural Resource Agencies. 2d ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Well-developed assessment of the rise and fall of natural resource bureaucracies in the United States, including the Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Clepper, Henry. Origins of American Conservation. New York: Ronald Press, 1966. Brief survey of the history of conservation in the United States includes chapters on wildlife regulation and restoration, forests and forestry, fisheries, and water conservation.
  • Dolan, Edward F. The American Wilderness and Its Future: Conservation Versus Use. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992. Discussion of the attempt to balance the need for conservation with the need to use natural resources. Includes information on the role of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the enforcement of laws under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Dupree, A. Hunter. Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities to 1940. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1957. Classic, well-documented study of the relationship between the development of science in the United States and national politics. Discusses the Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the effort to use the tools of science in the work of conservation.
  • Jaussaud, Renee M. “United States Fish and Wildlife Service.” In Government Agencies, edited by Donald R. Whitnah. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. Provides a brief history of the bureaus that were part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1871 to 1976.
  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Discusses how humans and environment have interacted throughout American history, including human impacts on animal species. Includes an environmental history time line and an extensive guide to resources.

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