Open Spaces: The Fish & Wildlife Service You Don't Know: Defender of the Known Universe?

The Fish & Wildlife Service You Don't Know: Defender of the Known Universe?

Ask a random sampling of Fish and Wildlife Service employees how they feel about their work. More than one will quickly and enthusiastically characterize their jobs in this agency as, “Out of this world!”

Yet only one Fish and Wildlife Service employee holds legitimate title to a job description that’s been truly “extraterrestrial” in its scope.

Jim Warren

Jim Warren who began his career in 1960 as a $4,040-a-year, GS-5 fish biologist, tucked away amid the fir trees of Little White Salmon National Fish Hatchery in woodsy Washington State’s Columbia River gorge. 

Within a decade, fortune had bestowed on Warren the title of “Defender of the Known Universe Against All Contaminating Alien Life Forms.”  (Clearly a responsibility well outside his official job description … the pay still nothing to write home about, however.)

Warren, whose only previous experience as a superhero was 2 years in Army artillery school during the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, bounced around the hatchery system out West for most of the 1960s, until landing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, as a fish health manager.  “People would bring me a bucket of fish and I would figure out what was wrong with them,” Warren characterizes his early career.

Shortly after his arrival in Wisconsin, the call came for Warren to relocate temporarily yet again … to Clear Lake City, Texas, where the aquatic biologist would tackle a hush-hush, super-sensitive assignment -- one with a decidedly terrestrial cast.  Government scientists had been given a bag of rocks and dust that contained the potential for contamination of the planet.  It would be Warren’s job to figure out if they were safe.

Buzz Aldrin performs experimentBuzz Aldrin setting up an experiment during Apollo 11 mission.  Photo: NASA

Warren would become NASA’s point man in its quest to learn whether the Earth and all of its fishy denizens were under any threat from the world’s first moon rocks, collected and brought back in 1969 by the astronauts of Apollo 11.

NASA reasoned, says Warren, “The Interior Department had some responsibility in protecting the fish and wildlife of the United States.  Since astronauts were bringing foreign material in from the moon, the Fish and Wildlife Service had a role.  With Agriculture and the Public Health Service, the roles were more obvious -- protecting livestock, poultry, and humans from moon contamination. Actually, the Service didn’t have much authority … little shreds of legal responsibility in Title 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations regulating the movement of critters from place to place, but …  

“Any thinking person would know, because there is no atmosphere on the moon and the moon is continually bombarded by radiation from the sun and has intense heat and cold, that the likelihood of anything infectious to life on Earth that might be coming from the moon was virtually nil.  But nobody could rule out toxic agents in the lunar samples.  Nobody knew … and nobody could say there was no danger.”

As leader of the Manned Spacecraft Center’s aquatic animal testing section, Warren set up aquaria in a sophisticated series of top-dollar, sealed isolation chambers where a Noah’s Ark of Eden’s creatures – planaria, oysters, shrimp, guppies and mummichogs – were exposed for 3 weeks to a witch’s brew of dust, gravel, and lunar debris.?  

The process, says Warren, was exacting.  “Technicians and geologists would open the transport box from the moon in a special, huge vacuum chamber, a phenomenal piece of equipment.  They would take the rock and sand and inventory everything, and then portion out the samples for study, grinding everything we used to particles of about 2 microns in diameter.  Our pre-calibrated stainless steel scoops we’d dip into the lunar material and bring out exactly 0.22 grams,” Warren remembers.

“We’d drop it into the aquarium and, of course, we’d immediately end up with a muddy-looking mess in there, all murky.  But it did not seem to bother the fish at all.  To make a long story short … it didn’t bother anything.  It did not create any problem whatsoever.”

Score one for Planet Earth.

Apollo 12 BasaltBasalt brought back from Apollo 12 mission to the Moon.  Photo: NASA

Warren, now retired after a storied, 38-year career and living in Vancouver, Washington, went on to perform the same diagnostic services for rock samples from Apollo 12 and 13  (the latter assignment never materializing because of the aborted flight that prevented a lunar landing).The most notable aspect of his short-term, “other duty as assigned,” handling the most valuable substance known to man? Two stand out:  “Lone Star” beer and barbeque.  “Lunch in Texas … was a wonderful thing,” muses the Fish and Wildlife Service’s foremost “Defender of the Known Universe.”

This is another in a series of short features about little-known aspects of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by David Klinger, a writer-editor at our National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

A veteran of 34 years with the Service, David Klinger has been ferreting out some of our untold stories in a running feature called, “The Fish and Wildlife Service You Don’t Know,” that appears in Fish and Wildlife News and other publications. “They’re a cross between in-house chatter and ‘urban legend’ – all true, most largely unremarked and unacknowledged, every one of them fascinating,” says Klinger.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012