Date of this Version
The predecessor of the Wildlife Services program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, was founded by C. Hart Merriam in 1885 with a Congressional appropriation of $5,000. These funds were used to organize a Section of Economic Ornithology as part of the Entomology Division of USDA. Merriam immediately hired longtime friend A. K. Fisher to be his assistant and the two shared a clerk. The new Section proved to be so popular with farmers and politicians that the Congress created a separate Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy in 1886. The Commissioner of Agriculture stated that the principal effort of the Division would be to educate farmers about birds and mammals affecting their interests, so that destruction of useful species might be prevented. One of the first publications dealt with the introduction of the English sparrow into the United States.
Merriam and his assistants began to collect data on the geographic distribution of various birds and mammals of economic importance. “Economic” was gradually dropped from the organization’s title, and in about 1890, the title of the Division was changed to the Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy. Early studies detailed the life histories and impacts of jack rabbits, ground squirrels of the Mississippi Valley, and pocket gophers. In addition, field experiments on the control of prairie dogs in Texas and New Mexico were initiated. Merriam and others soon promoted another change in the title of the Division to the Biological Survey, arguing that the name was more apt, and in 1896, the Division was renamed. In 1905, the name was changed again to the Bureau of Biological Survey and this title remained as long as the program was with the Department of Agriculture.
Merriam’s dedication to field surveys never wavered, even though it brought him into constant conflict with various Congressmen who did not see the practical value of investigating animals in Canada and Mexico. Merriam insisted that the information was needed to help the farmers in the United States. Nevertheless, his agency was known by some as the “Bureau of Extravagant Mammalogy,” and in 1907, several Congressmen attempted to abolish the Bureau’s appropriation. In the end, the effort failed, thanks in part to President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt expressed his pleasure at the outcome with a characteristic note to Merriam that read “Bully for the Biological Survey.”