World's First Wildlife Conservation Agency
From one challenge – to determine why fisheries were declining off our nation’s coasts and inland waters and how to fix it – our history begins. The origins of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began in 1871 with the creation of the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries. Since then, the name of our agency has changed multiple times, yet what endures is our dedication to facing conservation challenges through science-based management to restore and safeguard fish, wildlife, and their habitats.
The National Conservation Training Center is dedicated to the interpretation and display of America's conservation heritage. NCTC is the "home" of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Museum/Archives maintaining a museum on campus with films, photos, documents, and artifacts chronicling the history of American wildlife conservation.
At many national wildlife refuges, you can also see evocative pieces of America’s past, including fossils, buildings, museum objects, and archaeological remains. That’s because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conserves cultural and historic resources found on its lands and waters, as mandated by Congress under the National Historic Preservation Act.
Significant Milestones in our 150-year History
The U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries is created by Congress on February 9 and charged with studying and recommending solutions to the decline in food fishes and to promote fish culture. President Ulysses S. Grant appoints Spencer Fullerton Baird as the first commissioner. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will eventually be established from this origin.
Within the year, Baird establishes the commission’s headquarters at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, Massachusetts where he and his small staff began studies of striped bass, bluefish, and other sport and commercial fish species in the area. By the end of the year, Baird issues the first of a continuing series of Commissioner's reports, 255 pages relating to the country's fish resources.
The U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries begins fish culture development, leading to the creation of the National Fish Hatchery System. Today, the National Fish Hatchery System operates a network of 70 hatcheries, one historic hatchery, seven fish technology centers, and six fish health centers nationwide – all dedicated to improving, conserving, restoring, and enhancing fish and other aquatic resources.
The Division of Entomology Section of Economic Ornithology is established in the Department of Agriculture. With Clinton Hart Merriam appointed its first chief, much of the Division's early work focuses on studying the positive effects of birds in controlling agricultural pests and defining the geographic distribution of animals and plants throughout the country. The Division later expands and is renamed the Bureau of Biological Survey. The Bureau will be the “wildlife origin” of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the next century.
D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery is established in Spearfish, South Dakota. The hatchery is still in operation today and is now the home of the National Fish & Aquatic Conservation Archives, which houses 1.8 million archival records and 14,000 historic objects related to the history of the Service's fish and aquatic conservation efforts.
Neosho National Fish Hatchery is established in Neosho Missouri. Today, Neosho is the oldest operating federal fish hatchery in the United States and one of 17 national fish hatcheries that are more than 100 years old. Neosho continues to play a key role in the restoration efforts of endangered aquatic species such as paddlefish, lake sturgeon, Topeka shiners, and pallid sturgeon.
The Lacey Act becomes the first Federal law protecting wildlife, prohibiting the interstate shipment of illegally taken game and importation of injurious species.
The first Federal Bird Reservation is established by President Theodore Roosevelt on Pelican Island, Florida (on ancestral lands of the Miccosukee Tribe) and placed under the jurisdiction of the Biological Survey. It is the first unit of what would become the National Wildlife Refuge System and the first of 53 wildlife sanctuaries Roosevelt would establish as president. From this origin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services today manages 567 refuges and 38 wetland management districts on more than 150 million acres across the country.
Congress passes and President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Antiquities Act, designed to preserve and protect artifacts under a new rubric of national monuments. Roosevelt uses it to proclaim millions of acres as national monuments — including the Grand Canyon, home to several tribes.
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service co-manages two national monuments and five marine national monuments within the Refuge System.
The New York Zoological Society ships 15 bison to live in the wild at Wichita Forest Reserve and Game Preserve in Oklahoma. The preserve, home of the Wichita people and later the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, is a precursor to present-day Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The transfer of bison becomes an important milestone in the nation’s efforts to save animals from extinction.
President Theodore Roosevelt establishes the National Bison Range within Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, home of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This marks the first time Congress appropriates tax dollars to buy land specifically to conserve wildlife.
The range, now under jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was part of the National Wildlife Refuge System until December 2020. It is home to 250-300 bison, descended from a herd that tribal members transferred to the reservation in the 1870s.
|1913||The Federal Migratory Bird Law (Weeks-McLean Law) becomes effective, prohibiting spring hunting and marketing of migratory birds and the importation of wild bird feathers for women’s fashion. It also gives the Secretary of Agriculture the power to set hunting seasons nationwide.|
|1918||The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is passed by Congress (replacing Weeks-McLean), implementing the Convention Between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds. The Act, a landmark in wildlife legislation, provides for the regulation of migratory bird hunting and it prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The treaty has since been expanded to include Mexico, Japan and Russia.|
|1929||The Migratory Bird Conservation Act is passed, creating the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission to oversee acquisition of national wildlife refuge national wildlife refuge |
A national wildlife refuge is typically a contiguous area of land and water managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the conservation and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.
Learn more about national wildlife refuge lands. The act states that refuges are to be managed as “inviolate” sanctuaries for migratory birds.
Aldo Leopold writes Game Management, considered the “cornerstone” of conservation that creates the discipline of wildlife management.
1933 to 1941
With the cooperation of Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt establishes the Civilian Conservation Corps by executive order. Over the next eight years, amid the Great Depression and a drought that turned much of nation’s midsection into the Dust Bowl, thousands of CCC and Works Progress Administration workers improve habitat and build infrastructure at more than 50 national wildlife refuges. The workers included segregated African Americans and indigenous people.
The original Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act authorizes the Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce to “provide assistance to and cooperate with Federal and State agencies” on issues involving the protection and production of fish and wildlife.
The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, popularly known as the "Duck Stamp Act," is passed by Congress. The Act requires the purchase of a stamp.
Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling is appointed Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey. Darling's brief 18-month tenure results in a new ambitious course for the agency to acquire and protect vital wetlands and other habitat throughout the country. Darling introduces and draws the first Duck Stamp and creates the blue goose symbol for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Division of Game Management is created in the Bureau of Biological Survey for wildlife law enforcement.
The Federal Power Act is enacted and requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to accept the Bureau of Fisheries’ prescriptions for fish passage fish passage
Fish passage is the ability of fish or other aquatic species to move freely throughout their life to find food, reproduce, and complete their natural migration cycles. Millions of barriers to fish passage across the country are fragmenting habitat and leading to species declines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Fish Passage Program is working to reconnect watersheds to benefit both wildlife and people.
Learn more about fish passage .
The Lacey Act is amended to prohibit foreign commerce in illegally taken wildlife.
Rachel Carson is hired as a marine biologist by Bureau of Fisheries, rises to become chief editor of publications for USFWS and writes groundbreaking work “Silent Spring” in 1962.
The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Pittman-Robertson) Act is passed by Congress to provide funding through excise taxes on firearms and ammunition to States to help restore and manage wild birds and mammals and their habitat and to educate hunters in safe, ethical hunting practices.
The Bureaus of Fisheries and Biological Survey are moved to the Department of the Interior and the following year on June 30, 1940 are combined to create the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Bureau of Biological Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries are transferred from the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce, respectively, to the Department of the Interior. As part of this reorganization, the Secretary of the Interior unsuccessfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to transfer the Forest Service from Agriculture to Interior.
Bald Eagle Protection Act is enacted to protect our nation’s iconic symbol. It will be amended in 1962 to become the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
In response to amendments to the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Service creates the River Basins Study Program to help minimize and prevent damage to fish and wildlife resulting from Federal water projects.
The program led to the creation of a growing network of field offices that would become the Service’s Ecological Services field offices of today, bringing fish and wildlife technical assistance to the public and state agencies throughout the country.
The Service officially establishes a program recognizing North America's four migratory bird flyways in an effort to improve management of migratory waterfowl hunting. This will lead to the establishment of Flyways Councils in 1952.
The Service opens the first Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest to any U.S. artists who wishes to enter. It is the only art competition of its kind sponsored by the U.S. government.
The National Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest for children in kindergarten through 12th grade was established in 1989.
The Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration (Dingell-Johnson) Act is passed to create a program funded by excise taxes on fishing equipment for helping States restore and improve America's fishery resources. It is patterned after the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is re-organized and renamed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, consisting of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and Bureau of Commercial Fisheries.
Congress passes the Fish and Wildlife Act. It authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to make decisions for the development, management, advancement, conservation and protection of fisheries resources and wildlife resources through research, acquisition of refuge lands, development of existing facilities and other means.
Amendments to the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act require coordination between Federal and State agencies and consideration of fish and wildlife impacts, thereby laying the groundwork for the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and portions of the Clean Water Act.
Rachel Carson’s seminal book, “Silent Spring,” is released to wide acclaim. The book is a bold indictment of the harm to people and wildlife caused by unregulated use of DDT and other pesticides.
Carson had been hired as a marine biologist in 1936 by Bureau of Fisheries and rose to become chief editor of publications for the Service. In 1951, she published “The Sea Around Us.” This book sold widely enough to allow her to retire from government service in 1952 to pursue her literary career.
The Refuge Recreation Act is signed into law. It requires any public recreation activity on an individual refuge to be compatible with the refuge’s purpose and that funds be available to manage the activity.
Congress passes and President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Land and Water Conservation Act, which provides a source of funding for local, state and federal acquisition of lands for conservation and recreational uses.
Congress passes and President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Wilderness Act into law. Today, the Service manages more than 70 wilderness areas on more than 20 million acres.
The first piece of comprehensive legislation addressing the management of refuges, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, is passed. The Act provides new guidance for administering the System and requires that proposed uses on refuges must be "compatible" with refuge purposes.
The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act formally establishes the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Bald eagles are declared an endangered species.
Congress passes the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to become the principle tool for assessing the impacts of major federal development projects on fish and wildlife. NEPA planning is now the center piece of nearly all federal resource planning and mitigation.
The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, an arm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is transferred to the Department of Commerce and renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service establishes the National Eagle Repository based in Pocatello, Idaho to receive, store, and distribute parts from bald and golden eagles that have been found dead to Native Americans enrolled in federally recognized tribes for use in religious and cultural ceremonies.
Since 1995, the National Eagle Repository and National Wildlife Property Repository have been located at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside of Denver, Colorado.
America’s first urban refuge established at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia.
The Environmental Protection Agency bans the use of DDT in the U.S. because of its potential danger to both people and to wildlife, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and brown pelican.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act is enacted, prohibiting the take (i.e., hunting, killing, capture, and /or harassment) of marine mammals, and enacting a moratorium on the import, export, and sale of marine mammal parts and products.
The Endangered Species Act is passed by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon to protect endangered plants and animals. Building on legislation passed in 1966 and 1969, the new law expands and strengthens efforts to protect species domestically and internationally. The Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service assume responsibility for administering the Act.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) becomes effective with 80 countries participating. Currently, 183 nations participate in CITES.
The first plant species are listed as endangered—the San Clemente Island Indian paintbrush, San Clemente Island larkspur, San Clemente Island broom, and San Clemente Island bush-mallow.
The Service Fire Management program is formally established with a new Fire Management Branch at the Boise Interagency Fire Center (now known as the National Agency Fire Center) in Boise, Idaho, along with the headquarters of other federal agency fire programs. The Service adopts interagency standards for fire operations and qualifications. By the 1980s, the Service offers field training in basic fire suppression, fire behavior, and prescribed burning. Today, the program’s safety record is exemplary.
Passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, signed by President Jimmy Carter, dramatically expands the size of the National Wildlife Refuge System, adding nine new refuges, expanding seven existing refuges, adding more than 53 million acres of land, and designating numerous wilderness areas.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act is enacted protecting non-game species.
Congress passes the Wallop-Breaux Amendments to the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1950 (Dingell-Johnson), which combines and expands funding for sport fish restoration and boating safety programs. It established the Aquatic Resources Trust Fund that receives revenues from federal excise taxes levied on sport fishing equipment and estimated motorboat fuel sales, and import duties on fishing equipment, pleasure boats and yachts.
The North American Waterfowl Management Plan is signed by the U.S. and Canada recognizing the importance of waterfowl and wetlands to North Americans and the need for international cooperation to restore waterfowl populations through habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement. With its update in 1994, Mexico became a signatory to the Plan.
American alligators are determined to have recovered as a species and are removed from the endangered species list.
Congress passes the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, in part, to support activities under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
The National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory is dedicated in Ashland, Oregon, providing expertise to assist in investigations ranging from species identification to technical assistance such as surveillance and photography. It is the only lab in the world dedicated to crimes against wildlife.
The National Wildlife Refuge System’s 500th refuge is established: Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, ancestral lands of the Shawnee indigenous peoples in West Virginia.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begins gray wolf restoration to Yellowstone National Park.
Congress passes and President Bill Clinton signs the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. It provides the first “organic” legislation for management of the System. The Act amends the 1966 Administration Act and strengthens the mission of the System, clarifies the compatibility standard for public uses of refuges, and requires the completion of comprehensive management plans for every refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opens the National Conservation Training Center, a 533-acre sustainability-forward campus, on the former Hendrix Farmstead situated on the banks of the Potomac River in Shepherdstown, West Virginia to provide world-class training and professional development.
Congress creates the State Wildlife Grant Program to provide Federal grant funds to state fish and wildlife agencies for developing and implementing programs that benefit wildlife and their habitats, including species that are not hunted or fished. It is the only federal program with the explicit goal of preventing endangered species listings.
The program led to the development of State Wildlife Action Plans that have collectively identified more than 12,000 species of greatest conservation need. The Tribal Wildlife Grants Program was created in 2001.
Congress passes the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act to protect and conserve neotropical migrants both in the U.S. and in their winter homes in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, the first international wildlife refuge in North America, is created
The National Wildlife Refuge System celebrates its centennial. An enduring focal point of the celebration is the Centennial Trail at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. The boardwalk trail — dedicated on March 14, 2003 — incorporates more than 560 engraved planks, one for each refuge established between 1903 and the present.
White-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that affects hibernating bats, is first discovered in a single cave in New York.
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Pacific is established by President George W. Bush. Today, the USFWS manages aquatic resources on more than 685 million acres within four Pacific and one Atlantic Marine National Monuments.
As a result of the banning of DDT and ESA protection, bald eagles are determined to have recovered as a species and are removed from the endangered species list.
2007 to 2009
President George W. Bush establishes the Pacific Remote Islands, Mariana Trench, and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments as part of the Refuge System. The monuments support millions of nesting seabirds and provide homes for some of the most rare species, pristine coral reefs, and unusual marine life on Earth.
Polar bear is listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to global climate change climate change
Climate change includes both global warming driven by human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases and the resulting large-scale shifts in weather patterns. Though there have been previous periods of climatic change, since the mid-20th century humans have had an unprecedented impact on Earth's climate system and caused change on a global scale.
Learn more about climate change .
Brown pelicans — the bird that inspired the establishment of the first national wildlife refuge at Florida’s Pelican Island — are determined to have recovered as a species and are removed from the endangered species list.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill pollutes public and private lands and waters along the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas, including national wildlife refuges.
The U.S. Postal Service starts selling the “Save Vanishing Species” stamp known as the “Tiger Stamp” to fund conservation projects around the world and stamp out extinction.
Hurricane Sandy makes landfall on Oct. 29 devastating communities along the Atlantic Coast with record levels of storm surge and tropical storm force. Sandy damages were estimate at $50 billion, with 24 states impacted by the storm. The Service receives $65 million in recovery funding and $102 million in resilience funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 to clean up and repair damaged wildlife refuges and facilities and to restore coastal marshes, wetlands and shoreline, create open connections to rivers and streams for fish passage, and reduce the risk of flooding from future storms.
Leading African-American fraternity Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined forces to conserve America’s wildlife in a new way. The two organizations signed an historic memorandum of understanding in Washington, DC, establishing a partnership that will provide new opportunities for urban youth to experience the natural world and promote interest in conservation and the biological sciences.
Leading African American sorority Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) have signed a historic memorandum of understanding in Washington, D.C., to work cooperatively to engage urban youth in outdoor recreation, biological sciences and healthful activity in nature.
Oregon chub becomes the first ever fish species removed from the from the endangered species list due to recovery.
On January 3, a group of armed militants occupy the headquarters buildings at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. A standoff between the occupiers and federal law enforcement officials lasts 41 days — until February 11, when the final occupiers surrender to police.
Louisiana black bears are determined to have recovered as a species and are removed from the endangered species list.
A near-total ban on commercial trade in African elephant ivory goes into effect on July 6 in the United States.
The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act is signed into law, which permanently authorizes the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1965.
The Great American Outdoors Act Great American Outdoors Act
This landmark conservation law, enacted in 2020, authorizes the use of up to $1.9 billion a year in energy development revenues for five years for needed maintenance to facilities and infrastructure in our wildlife refuges, national parks, forests, recreation areas and American Indian schools.
Learn more about Great American Outdoors Act is signed into law. Using royalties from offshore oil and natural gas, it permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at its highest possible amount $900 million annually—to improve habitat and access on public lands in every state of the nation.