Long lost agencies: The Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy

C. Hart Merriam (1855-1942), founder of a predecessor of the Fish and Wildlife Service
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Brooks Hays

People talk about “alphabet soup” when it comes to federal agencies and their many acronyms. But when some of the first federal agencies were being created, it was more like animal crackers. One example comes from the U.S. government’s first attempt to catalogue, study, and ultimately manage America’s wildlife: The Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy. Established in 1885 as part of the Agriculture Department’s Entomology Division, the division was tasked with collecting data on the geographic distribution and behavior of various birds and mammals which offered economic value. In other words, the agency was responsible for supporing populations of birds and other wildlife that proved helpful to farmers and sportsmen (including species that killed harmful insects), as well as to reduce pests considered detrimental to agriculture (groundhogs and squirrels).

The agency’s first director, Clinton Hart Merriam, was more intent on carrying out scientific field studies than doing the actual labor of promoting some species and controlling others, and he encouraged lawmakers to grant his agency a more expansive role in observing the nation’s fauna, flora, and wild inhabitants. Though some Congressmen questioned the logic of Merriam’s leadership, labeling his agency the “Department of Extravagant Mammalogy,” he ultimately succeeded, and in 1896 the Department was renamed the Division of Biological Survey to reflect the agency’s newfound responsibilities. Given an initial appropriation of $5,000, by 1894, Merriam’s lobbying had earned the agency an annual budget of $27,000.

Early studies included the study of jackrabbits, pocket gophers, and prairie dogs. But the agency’s efforts quickly became more comprehensive, completing a series of "life-zone" maps of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, which charted wildlife and plant species across the continent. The maps proved immensely beneficial to later attempts to understand America’s different ecosystems.

Perhaps the agency’s most significant scientific contribution was its work demonstrating the dangers of invasive species. Merriam fielded studies proving that exotic species of birds and mammals imported to combat native pests were more detrimental than beneficial. One of Merriam’s studies showed that the English sparrow, imported to hunt and eat caterpillars that diminished crop yields, was actually driving off other species of birds that were more effective at hunting the caterpillar. As a result, the number of crop-eating caterpillars had skyrocketed. Merriam’s findings, at least in part, inspired The Lacey Act, which allowed the Department of Agriculture to regulate animal imports. In 1905, the name of Merriam’s agency was changed again to the Bureau of Biological Survey. The agency was eventually incorporated into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.