Origins of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service



Although a relative newcomer to the Department of the Interior, the Fish and Wildlife Service's programs are among the oldest in the world dedicated to the conservation of natural resources. 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 agency's history has closely mirrored the American public's growing concern with conservation and environmental issues for over 125 years.


Year Event
1871 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 as 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 Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy is established in the Department of Agriculture. With Clinton Hart Merriam appointed as 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 geographical 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 game, prohibiting the interstate shipment of illegally taken wildlife and importation of species. Enforcement of the Act becomes the responsibility of the Biological Survey. 
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 as "national wildlife refuges" in 1942.
1918 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 conservation legislation, provides for the regulation of migratory bird hunting.
1930's Thousands of workers employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration improve habitat and build the infrastructure of over 50 national 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 resulted in the protection of approximately 4.5 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.
1937 The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (commonly referred to as the Pittman-Robertson Act) is passed by Congress to provide funding for the selection and improvement of wildlife habitat, improving wildlife management research and distributing information.
1939 The Bureaus of Fisheries and Biological Survey are moved to the Department of the Interior and the following year combined to create the Fish and Wildlife Service.
1946 In response to amendments to the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, the Service establishes 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 the management of migratory waterfowl hunting.
1950 The FWS' Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act (commonly referred to as the Dingell-Johnson Act) is passed to create a program for restoring and improving America's fishery resources. It is patterned after the Pittman-Robertson Act passed in 1937.
1956 Fish and Wildlife Act creates two new bureaus: Bureau of Commercial Fisheries and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife.
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 Fish and Wildlife 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 upon legislation passed in 1966 and 1969, the new law expands and strengthens efforts to protect species domestically and internationally. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service assume responsibility for administering the Act.
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 over 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 the management of the Refuge System. The Act amends the 1966 Act and strengthens the mission of the Refuge System, clarifies the compatibility standard for public uses of refuges, and requires the completion of comprehensive plans for every refuge.