Fish and Wildlife Service Essay

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A Bureau of the Department of Interior, the Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal government’s lead agency in charge of wildlife and freshwater fish conservation. Although fish and wildlife presumptively fall within the jurisdiction of the 50 states, the federal government’s role has increased significantly since the late 19th century through international treaties; the creation of national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges; the Commerce Clause; and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Today, the Fish and Wildlife Service administers a system of 520 wildlife refuges and “waterfowl production areas” covering roughly 93 million acres of land (more than half of which is in Alaska). Its Ecological Services Division oversees endangered species protection (except for marine and anadromous fish, which fall under the jurisdiction of NOAA Fisheries in the Department of Commerce).

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a complex and rather haphazard administrative history, in which various tasks and mandates accrued to it in response to changing social pressures, legal decisions, and political opportunities. Its roots include congressional acts in the 1860s that were the first federal protections of wildlife (in the Yosemite Valley and the Pribilof Islands of Alaska); Executive Orders reserving certain federal lands from private exploitation beginning in the 1880s; and the creation of bureaucratic units to study fish and wildlife resources, such as the Federal Office of Commissioner of Fisheries (1871) and the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy in the Department of Agriculture (1885). Its institutional identity, however, revolves principally around national wildlife refuges, the first of which came into being in 1903 when Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the 3-acre Pelican Island in Florida a Federal Bird Reservation. By 1909, Roosevelt had issued 50 more Executive Orders creating wildlife reservations. Congress created still others, including the National Bison Range in 1908 and the National Elk Refuge in 1912. The Migratory Bird Act asserted federal authority over migratory birds in 1913, the same year that President Taft ordered the reservation of the Aleutian Island chain in Alaska.

The acts, orders, and bureaucratic innovations responded to crises brought on by unrestrained commercial exploitation of fish and wildlife, and they reflected the interests of specific constituencies. Many early refuges were created as “overlays” on reservoirs being constructed by the recently created Bureau of Reclamation. Federal fish hatcheries and translocations had grown, since the 1870s, into an ambitious and politically popular system for increasing fish stocks for both sport and commercial purposes; in 1903 the Fish Commission was transferred to the new Department of Commerce and renamed the Bureau of Fisheries.

The coalitions behind this growth were unstable, however, reflecting larger tensions in the ends and means of Progressive Era natural resource management: first, between “conservation” to satisfy human needs and “preservation” for the sake of nature itself; second, between centralized, bureaucratic administration to maximize “efficiency” and the state or local level authorities favored by tradition and the Tenth Amendment. Sportsmen and naturalists allied against commercial exploitation in general, but frequently parted company over whether noncommercial or “sport” hunting would be allowed in refuges. Sites like Pelican Island could be effectively conserved by simple protection, but in other places nature had to be “fixed”-bison had to be shipped from the New York Zoological Society to the Wichita Forest Reserve and Game Preserve, for example-or actively manipulated to increase harvests, as with fish hatcheries and translocations. Meanwhile, Congress was reluctant to appropriate funds for federal agencies that seemed to be intruding on matters previously left to the states, although activities that yielded economic returns to local constituencies could sometimes find favor.

The Depression and New Deal forged compromises that set the basic framework for the next four decades. The Civilian Conservation Corps provided labor to improve habitat and infrastructure on refuges; some new refuges were created from lands acquired by the Resettlement Administration from bankrupted farmers. In addition, the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934 (better known as the Duck Stamp Act) created a reliable revenue source by requiring waterfowl hunters to pay a fee. In 1939 the Bureau of Biological Survey and the Bureau of Fisheries were removed from the Agriculture and Commerce Departments, respectively, and transferred to the Department of Interior, where a year later they were merged to form the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 ratified the role of refuges in national fish and wildlife policy, and a 1958 amendment to the Duck Stamp Act and the Wetlands Loan Act of 1961 helped generate funds for refuge acquisition.

It wasn’t until 1966, however, that Congress provided comprehensive legislative guidance for the management of refuges. The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act explicitly authorized hunting, recreation and other public uses on refuges provided they were “compatible” with the purposes for which the refuges had been established. These and other provisions were updated and further elaborated in the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.

Passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) presented the Fish and Wildlife Service with a fundamentally new challenge, although it would take some time for this to become apparent. Refuges dedicated to fish, migratory waterfowl, and game species could generally be managed in tried and true Progressive Era fashion: by demarcating boundaries, enforcing permit requirements, manipulating habitat, and in some cases producing target species for stocking. The species first protected under the ESA generally lent themselves to this approach as well, and the creation of refuges for them seemed a simple extension of past practice. But as other types of species have been listed-plants, insects, crustaceans, and all sorts of nongame birds and mammals-the Fish and Wildlife Service has had to face challenges that refuges alone cannot surmount: How to protect species whose biology and ecology are poorly understood, whose habitats extend across very large areas and/or lands unavailable for refuge creation, or whose listing triggers complex legal and regulatory issues. As a result, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s identity is once again in flux, with some calling for refuges to be split from Ecological Services.


  1. N. Clarke and D. C. McCool, Staking Out the Terrain: Power and Performance among Natural Resource Agencies (University of New York Press, 1996);
  2. Michael Tobias, Nature’s Keepers: On the Front Lines of the Fight to Save Wildlife in America (John Wiley & Sons, 1998);
  3. S. Fish and Wildlife Service website,

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