U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Created (1940)

The United States government had been conserving fisheries and wildlife for a long time, through the gradual accumulation of individual programs and offices.  But on June 30, 1940, the two primary agencies were married—a union that has lasted for 80 years and led the dramatic return of much of our native wildlife.

            The marriage had a long courtship.  Federal fisheries management began officially in 1871, when Congress created the Fish Commission to oversee the rebuilding of depleted marine fisheries; eventually the Fish Commission became the Bureau of Fisheries within the Department of Commerce.  Federal wildlife management began officially 14 years later, in 1885, when the US Department of Agriculture created the Section of Economic Ornithology, addressing the relationship of birds and farming.  A year later mammals were added to the charge and the agency was eventually renamed the Bureau of Biological Survey. 

            These two agencies, working separately and in two different cabinet departments (Commerce and Agriculture) carried the nation’s primary responsibility for all matters concerned with fisheries and wildlife.  President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t like the arrangement, so in 1939, he moved the two into the Department of the Interior, with this logic:

“These two Bureaus have to do with conservation and utilization of the wildlife resources of the country, terrestrial and aquatic. Therefore, they should be grouped under the same departmental administration, and in that Department which, more than any other, is directly responsible for the administration and conservation of the public domain.”

But that wasn’t enough.  The next year, on June 30, Congress and the President agreed on another reorganization that married the two as one comprehensive agency—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  Roosevelt further reasoned that “[t]he natural areas of operation of these two bureaus frequently coincide, and their activities are interrelated and similar in character. Consolidation will eliminate duplication of work, facilitate coordination of programs, and improve service to the public.”

Lake sturgeon are raised at the Edenton, NC National Fish Hatchery (photo by USFWS Southeast Region)

            Several later reorganizations have occurred (the most important was the removal of commercial and marine fisheries management back to the Department of Commerce), but the USFWS has remained mostly stable since 1940.  It now operates through a Washington, DC, headquarters, 8 regional offices, and field offices distributed across the country.  The USFWS employs about 9,000 people supported by about $2.7 billion in appropriations, both discretionary and mandatory.

            The programs of the agency have expanded over the years as concerns for fisheries and wildlife resources have evolved.  The USFWS states that its mission is to “work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.”  The agency address that mission through these major programmatic areas:

American Avocets at a Utah national wildlife refuge (photo by USFWS Headquarters)
  • Operation of the National Wildlife Refuge System, which contains 568 refuges, 38 wetland districts and 5 marine national monuments covering 95 million acres of lands and 760 million acres of submerged lands and waters;
  • Restoration of fish and wildlife populations and their habitats, including both hunted and non-hunted (or non-game) species and raising fish in 70 national fish hatcheries;
  • Protection of threatened and endangered species, primarily through the Endangered Species Act (however, marine and anadromous species are protected by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce);
  • Management of migratory birds, including hunting quotas throughout the U.S, laws and treaties that cover birds that migrate internationally, and the Duck Stamp program (Duck Stamps are basically licenses that must be purchased by all hunters of migratory birds);
  • Leadership of the U.S. role in international conservation, including treaties and other agreements with nations of the world, such as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES);
  • Enforcement of all federal wildlife laws, such as the Lacey Act (that prohibits interstate trade in wild species); and
  • Management of federal excise tax programs that provide funding to states and territories for fisheries and wildlife restoration, known commonly as the Dingell-Johnson and Pittman-Robertson Acts.

The job of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a big one, and it gains in importance with each passing year.  The successes of the agency—many of which have been described on other pages in this website—have produced the bountiful resources that we enjoy today, from self-sustaining wolf populations to resurgent Wild Turkey populations.  May they remain happily married and in love—with nature—for another 80!


Crafton, R. Eliot.  2018.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:  An Overview.  Congressional Research Service, July 20, 2018.  Available at:  https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45265.  Accessed March 11, 2020.

Natonal Archives.  Records of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Available at:  https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/022.html#22.1. Accessed March 11, 2020.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  About the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Available at:  https://www.fws.gov/help/about_us.html. Accessed March 11, 2020. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Public Lands and Waters, National Wildlife Refuge System.  Available at:  https://www.fws.gov/refuges/about/public-lands-waters/index.html. Accessed March 11, 2020.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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