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Chronology of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For more information log on to training.fws.gov/history.

The Service traces its origins to the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries in the Department of Commerce and the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy in the Department of Agriculture. Both programs were created to help stem the dramatic decline of the Nation's fish and wildlife resources during the last quarter of the 19th century. The Service's history has closely mirrored the American public's growing concern with conservation and environmental issues for more than 135 years.

1871 The U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries is created by Congress and charged with studying and recommending solutions to the decline in food fishes and to promote fish culture. Spencer Fullerton Baird is appointed the first commissioner. A year later, the Commission's Baird Station in northern California is used to collect, fertilize, and ship salmon eggs by rail to the East Coast.

1885 The Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy 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.

1900 The Lacey Act becomes the first Federal law protecting wildlife, prohibiting the interstate shipment of illegally taken game and importation of injurious species.

1903 The first Federal Bird Reservation is established by President Theodore Roosevelt on Pelican Island, Florida, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Biological Survey. Pelican Island and other early Federal wildlife reservations are re-designated "National Wildlife Refuges" in 1942.

1918 The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is passed, 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.

1933-41 Thousands of workers employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration improve habitat and build the infrastructure of more than 50 wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries.

1934 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 by waterfowl hunters. Revenue generated by the stamp is used to acquire important wetlands. Since its inception, the program has helped protect more than 5 million acres of waterfowl habitat.

1934 Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling is appointed Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey. Darling's brief tenure results in a new ambitious course for the agency to acquire and protect vital wetlands and other habitat throughout the country.

1936 Rachel Carson is hired as a marine biologist by Bureau of Fisheries, rises to become chief editor of publications and writes groundbreaking work Silent Spring in 1962.

1937 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.

1939 The Bureaus of Fisheries and Biological Survey are moved to the Department of the Interior and the following year are combined to create the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

1946 In response to amendments to the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Service creates a River Basins Study Program to help minimize and prevent damage to fish and wildlife resulting from Federal water projects.

1947 The Service officially establishes a program recognizing North America's four migratory bird flyways in an effort to improve management of migratory waterfowl hunting.

1950 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.

1964 The Wilderness Act is signed into law. Today the Service manages more than 70 wilderness areas on more than 20 million acres.

1966 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.

1970 The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, an arm of the Service, is transferred to the Department of Commerce and renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service.

1973 The Endangered Species Act is passed by Congress 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.

1975 The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) becomes effective with 80 countries participating. Currently, 167 nations participate in CITES.

1978 The Service Wildland 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.

1980 Passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act 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.

1997 Passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act 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.

2001 The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, the first international wildlife refuge in North America, is created.

2003 The National Wildlife Refuge System celebrates its centennial. On November 21, 2001, the National Wildlife Refuge Centennial Act is passed to recognize a century of wildlife conservation on our Nation's refuges. The act calls for improved public use programs and facilities on refuges, long-term planning to meet priority needs, and creation of a Centennial Commission to promote public awareness of the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Nov. 1902 Washington Post Cartoon of Roosevelt, Origin of Teddy Bear. Credit: USFWS
Nov. 1902 Washington Post Cartoon of Roosevelt, Origin of Teddy Bear. Credit: USFWs


Last updated: July 16, 2013
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