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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Looking Back: Spotlight on Ira Gabrielson

Every so often it's good to look into the past to revisit the people who got us where we are today. Looking Back is a new series on the people who helped shape the National Wildlife Refuge System. The series is based on "A Look Back," a regular column written by Karen Leggett, from the Refuge System Branch of Communications, which appears in each issue of the Refuge Update newsletter.

“When I learned there were actually jobs where people were paid for studying birds and mammals, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

-Ira Gabrielson

Ira Noel Gabrielson devoted his life not only to studying animals but also to protecting them and conserving their habitats. Born in Sioux Rapids, Iowa, “Dr. Gabe” began working with the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1915.  

He replaced J.N “Ding” Darling as director of the Survey in 1935, and when the Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940, Gabrielson became its first director.  Six years later, he left the Service to head the Wildlife Management Institute and later helped to organize and preside over the World Wildlife Fund.

Gabrielson releasing a duck

Gabrielson was instrumental in the establishment of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge in Maryland.  During his leadership, he oversaw a four-fold expansion of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The passage of several milestone wildlife laws took place during his tenure, including the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act, the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, better known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, which levies an excise tax on the sale of sporting firearms and ammunition.  Gabrielson traveled frequently and published constantly, appearing at sportsmen’s conventions and scientific society meetings, and in more than 120 technical and popular publications over six decades.  

A tribute in The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, recalled that Gabrielson’s “straightforward manner, sense of fairness, remarkable communication skills, knowledge and perception caught the attention of the press, politicians, statesmen, nobility and other leaders.”  In 1949, he published A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds, which sold more than five million copies before it was reissued in 2001. He wrote detailed diaries for almost 60 years and his unpublished autobiography is held at NCTC as a 700-page, double-space, typed manuscript.

Gabrielson Fishing

While Gabrielson was thinking globally, he was also acting locally – though it took the efforts of a local Girl Scout leader to acknowledge it.  He was the founder and first chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, selling his wooded property to the park authority in 1966. The extensive gardens Gabrielson planted next to the small home in Oakton, Virginia, have returned to nature, but there is a plaque honoring his contributions at the site known as Gabrielson Gardens Park. The plaque identifies Gabrielson as a “pioneer conservationist, distinguished field ornithologist and renowned author.” 

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