In 1907, when Congress tried to cut the budget of the 22-year-old Bureau of Biological Survey, the agency's founding director, famed naturalist C. Hart Merriam, simply went over to the White House and tipped off his friend, President Theodore Roosevelt.
T.R., an avid outdoorsman, understood the importance of the bureau's assigned mission to collect, catalog and study specimens of the nation's wildlife. The funding was preserved.
Today, July 1, is the 100th anniversary of the agency, which eventually became the nucleus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and whose extensive surveys, vast collections and ecological research established American zoology as a scientific discipline and laid the groundwork for the wildlife conservation movement.
Today the agency is also a struggling, dispirited bureaucratic waif far from the centers of power.
Since its heyday under T.R. the agency has been reorganized 11 times, had its name changed six times (usually to downgrade its rank), been shifted from the Agriculture Department to the Interior Department and seen its budget and staff decline for most of the past decade, from a high of 57 employes to 16 today.
Once it was forgotten even by its own parent.
A few years ago an interior secretary wrote to thank the head of the Smithsonian Institution for "the scientists of your Bird and Mammal Laboratories who in consultation with my staff contributed much valuable scientific information on the present exploitation of whales."
The Bird and Mammal Laboratory, as the old Biological Survey was then called, was a part of his Interior Department.
The mistake may have been understandable, because the agency and its vast collections have been housed since 1910 in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, behind the public exhibits. The agency has been even more politically obscure since 1981, when Interior put the bureau under the jurisdiction of its research center in Denver.
"We do get discouraged sometimes," said Alfred L. Gardner, head of the mammal group of what is now called the Biological Survey Section.
"But we've been around a hundred years and we're still plugging away, doing pretty much the same things Merriam was doing," he said.
For the most part, that means collecting representative specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians of every known species in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas, preserving them either dried or in bottles of alcohol, and then analyzing the specimens and their ecological relationships to produce a comprehensive picture of the natural world.
This often means making expeditions to trap or shoot specimens and, in the process, map their distribution and describe their behaviors.
In the early days, the survey's expeditions were often among the first to explore many remote regions of the West. It was a job that called as much for a woodsman's experience as a zoologist's knowledge.
On expeditions into the wilds Merriam was known as a loud autocrat who liked to tell off-color stories and to feast on some of the animals he was collecting. "Merriam had a skunk cooked down at the canyon," one of his collectors once wrote, "but I would not help him eat it. Skunks & cats are his favorite meat & he is especially fond of eagle."
The survey's early mandate was to help farmers and ranchers cope with pests and predators.
It has now shifted to knowing the natural world in enough detail to assess environmental impacts of existing technologies and to forecast the effects of proposed technologies.
Gardner characterizes the current role as "providing a scientific base for our stewardship of the nation's living resources."
The survey's collections, among the world's largest, include some 575,000 specimens -- whole preserved animals, skeletons, tanned skins and, for birds, some 20,000 eggs and nests. About 9,000 whole animals are "type specimens," the first discovered examples of new species.
Throughout its 100 years, Biological Survey researchers have been prominent figures in American zoological science. Merriam, for example, developed the concept of "life zones," ecologically distinct habitats that limit many species to specific ranges.
One of the survey's early employes was Clarence Birdseye, who aided early mink and fox ranchers by developing a reliable food supply for these carnivores: frozen fish. If minks thrived on frozen food, Birdseye then reasoned, so could people.
He went on to invent the frozen food industry.
Other survey scientists determined the migratory patterns of birds by carrying out widespread banding operations.
Still others developed a widely used strategy for counting wild animal populations by capturing a few and then tagging and releasing them to be recaptured later. An analysis of the proportion recaptured yields an estimate of the total population.
More recently, survey mammalogists did much of the research on the status of whales and seals that led to enactment and enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act -- work the interior secretary thought had been contributed by the Smithsonian.
Although survey scientists still go on collecting expeditions -- most recently to one of the last unexplored places in the world, a remote plateau in Venezuela high above the Amazon jungle where dozens of new species have been found -- a good share of time is spent answering questions from congressional staff members and government officials.
"We get all kinds here," Gardner said. "One day it's 'everything you know about the status of wild boar in the Great Smoky Mountains.' The next day it's a request from a senator's office to identify some strange material that he's gotten from a constituent who's worried."
At a time when the environmental effects of toxic wastes and acid rain are being dismissed because of insufficient evidence and when scientists are calling for a new national biological survey to compare with the past, Gardner said, the Biological Survey Section is often diverted from those tasks by efforts to ensure its survival through grants and cooperative arrangements with other research centers.
The survey's annual budget is about $700,000, less than the $800,000 it would have to pay for rent and utilities if space in the Smithsonian was not free.
"Somehow we get by," Gardner said. "We start off each year with not enough money to pay the salaries and, somehow, we tap other sources here and there and we scrape by."
Gardner and his colleagues had hoped there would be a fitting measure of hoopla to celebrate their centennial. It did not turn out that way.
"We're at least going to invite some friends over Monday afternoon and have a couple of beers," he said.