Fire is not new to lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wildland fire is integral part of many ecological (wildlife and plant) communities across the country. For more than a half-century, the Service has been a recognized leader in using fire to restore and maintain wildlife populations.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service traces its lineage to two predecessor bureaus, both pioneers in the early American conservation movement. In 1871 Congress established the U.S. Fish Commission under the Department of Commerce to study the decrease of the nation's food fishes and recommend ways to reverse the decline. The Commission was renamed the Bureau of Fisheries in 1903.

In 1885, Congress also created an Office of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy under the Department of Agriculture, renamed the Division of Biological Survey in 1896 and then the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1905. One task of this office was to study the food habits and migratory patterns of birds, especially those that affected agricultural crops. In addition to studying birds and mammals and protecting all non-fish species in the United States, the Survey managed the nation's first wildlife refuges.

In 1939, the Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey were transferred to the Department of the Interior and in 1940 they were combined to form the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1956 the Service was again divided into two sections, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and the Bureau of Sports Fisheries and Wildlife. In 1970 the Bureau of Commericial Fisheries was transferred to the Department of Commerce and renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife remained in the Department of the Interior reclaiming its name as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1974.

For many years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was the principal federal wildlife and fisheries research agency. The Service's research function was reorganized and became part of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1996. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been run by at least three Cabinet-level departments and endured many name changes, its mission has remained remarkably consistent for more than 130 years.

Early Research on Fire and Wildlife

Beginning in 1924, because of declining game bird populations in southern Georgia and northern Florida, the Bureau of Biological Survey began research known as the Cooperative Quail Study Investigation. Heading this investigation, ornithologist Herbert L. Stoddard conducted field work for 4 years and in 1931 published a classic in wildlife management: The Bobwhite Quail, Its Habitats, Preservation, and Increase. Stoddard determined that quail populations in the South depended on a complex mix of land management practices and that fire played a huge role in maintaining quality quail habitat.

Many others followed in Stoddard’s footsteps researching and demonstrating the essential role of fire in achieving wildlife management objectives; much of this work took place on national wildlife refuges. In the preface to his 1933 book Game Management, Aldo Leopold recognized fire as one of the five primary tools for managing wildlife habitat.

Fire on National Wildlife Refuges

Unplanned and unwanted fire are annual occurrences, but prescribed burning began as early as 1927 in Florida on land that was later designated St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. During the 1930's, when other agencies stopped burning programs because of the notion that all fire was "bad," some refuge managers quietly continued. Refuges have had outstanding prescribed burning programs and have been recognized as pioneers in the application of scientifically-derived prescribed fire plans for habitat management and wildlife protection.

Prior to 1978, FWS refuge staff did not have the necessary fire suppression training and experience to make critical operational decisions beyond the initial attack of wildfires. Since FWS did not have a formal fire control organization, fire suppression responsibility was contracted to other federal agencies or states. These contractor agencies often had their own priorities and firefighting on FWS lands was not high among them.

In 1976, the Walsh Ditch Fire on Seney NWR in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan highlighted the need for a professional fire management organization. The fire was spotted by Michigan Department of Natural Resources personnel within Congressionally designated wilderness on the refuge. The refuge manager thought no action could be taken on the fire since it was in wilderness. Several weeks after the initial report, the fire "blew up" and spread out of the wilderness and off the refuge. A Department of the Interior incident management team finally suppressed the fire with many costly techniques and little input from the Service, leading to Congressional interest in implementing a fire management program for FWS.

FWS Fire Management Program

In 1978 the FWS Fire Management Program was formally instituted when the position of Fire Management Coordinator was filled making the FWS Fire Management Program the youngest of the five federal land management agencies. In 1979, FWS joined the other federal agencies in headquartering its fire program at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.

By 1983, the FWS fire management budget was $4.5 million with 64 full-time fire employees. In 1988, more than 1.5 million acres of refuge lands were burned by wildfire in Alaska, although this event was overshadowed by the highly publicized fires within the greater Yellowstone area. But as a result of the 1988 fire season, new support by Congress for fire management resulted in an FWS fire budget increase to $16.4 million, with 214 full-time fire staff. In addition, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior were charged with evaluating existing fire management policies and recommending actions to address problems experienced during the 1988 season.

The 1994 South Canyon Fire, 1998 Florida Fire Complex, 1999 Northern Nevada Fire Complex, and 2000 Western Fire Complexes culminated in a review of the federal fire policy and creation of the National Fire Plan. The FWS current fire management and budget currently reflects increased safety and workload needs, with about 500 full-time fire employees, and more than 2,000 FWS employees qualified ("red-carded") to support wildland fire incidents.

FWS Oral History Project

The Service currently is recording oral histories from the early years of the FWS fire program. This effort is part of the FWS Oral History Project, sponsored by the National Conservation Training Center.

Last Updated: 05/28/2014