More than 100 years later, the historic division is targeted for closure, part of a sweeping budget-cutting campaign by the Trump administration. With lawmakers poised next month to approve new priorities for agency funding for the first time since the president took office, the bureaucratic bloodletting can officially begin.
The Biological Survey Unit is hardly the only entity facing extinction. Dozens of long-standing programs are slated for termination, and every agency, large and small, has submitted a plan to the White House for reorganization.
At the Education Department, an “initial agency reform plan” obtained by The Washington Post calls for eliminating the Office of the Under Secretary, which coordinates activities related to postsecondary education, career-technical education and federal student aid.
The Agriculture Department would curtail the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, which since 1994 has offered business development counseling and job training for rural Americans.
And the U.S. Geological Survey aims to end its whooping crane restoration program, which over half a century has helped save the species. Some cranes have already been shipped to nonfederal facilities.
Until now, the administration has been largely prevented from making such moves because the government has been operating under a series of continuing budget resolutions. Those generally require agencies to maintain funding for existing programs. “The executive branch can’t just say, ‘We’re going to close down this part of government that has appropriated dollars,’ ” said Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Budget.
The ground is about to shift, however. Having cut a deal earlier this month to increase agency spending over the next two years, lawmakers expect in March to approve formal appropriations bills that will allow them to re-order agency priorities. Once the legislation passes, a House Appropriations Committee aide confirmed Friday, USGS will be able to shutter both the crane program and the Biological Survey Unit.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who met with House Republicans this month to discuss the restructuring efforts, said in an interview that he believes President Trump and his allies in Congress are prepared to fundamentally change the way government operates.
“A simple battle cry is that we need to move at the pace of technology, not the pace of bureaucracy,” Gingrich said. “And for every place that moves at the pace of bureaucracy, we need to overhaul it.”
In that sense, the Biological Survey Unit would appear to be a ripe target. Established in 1885 as the economic ornithology branch of the Agriculture Department, it set out to survey, study and catalogue plants and animals across the United States with an eye to helping the agriculture and industry sectors.
Today the office has an annual budget of about $1.6 million and six researchers, who help maintain nearly a million bird, reptile and mammal specimens, which are kept in climate-controlled vaults at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Those opposed to the bureau’s termination say closing it would impede public access to an important collection that reveals changes in the variety and distribution of species across North America, as well as shifts in climate, habitat and contaminant levels over time. DNA samples kept there continue to shed light on how myriad species have evolved.
“They’ve made a decision to mothball a reservoir of basic research, much of the baseline information on the fauna of the United States,” said David Schmidly, a former president of the University of New Mexico, Oklahoma State University and Texas Tech University, who has tapped the collection during six decades of research. “And that, to me, makes no sense.”
Supporters of Trump’s proposed budget cuts say such collections no longer represent cutting-edge research. They argue that private collectors and institutions should pick up the slack.
Gingrich, a passionate naturalist, said he does not know whether it makes sense to eliminate the Biological Survey Unit. Cutting the $1.6 million program, he acknowledged, would hardly make a dent in the nation’s $4.4 trillion federal budget.
But “if every six-person office is sacrosanct, then nothing can be done,” Gingrich said. “If this collection is that valuable, there are probably 20 billionaires that could endow it.”
Without question, the division’s storied history would be a draw. In its heyday in 1910, its budget stood at $10 million — adjusted for inflation, that would be $251 million today. Congress had tried to cut funding three years earlier, but founding director C. Hart Merriam personally appealed to his friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, who made sure the budget remained untouched.
Now the unit’s staff serve as collections managers and curators, granting researchers access to specimens, field notes and other records. But those staff scientists also have been involved in key studies themselves. They have conducted vertebrate surveys at military air bases to determine which species may endanger aircraft, for example, and which animals can serve as disease vectors in Afghanistan and Iraq. As part of the federal government’s multibillion-dollar restoration of the Florida Everglades, they’ve analyzed the stomach contents of Burmese pythons to help bring back native species the huge snakes were consuming.
Craig Ludwig, who serves as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s scientific data manager for the division of birds and mammals, helps oversee the extensive trove. The museum has 18 staffers who work in parallel with the Biological Survey Unit.
“We’ve had these collections for nearly 150 years,” Ludwig said as he showed off Birdseye’s yellowed field notebooks. “There’s no way of predicting how they might be useful to science in the future. They literally are irreplaceable.”
Last week, the leaders of the American Society of Mammalogists, American Ornithological Society and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists urged the Trump administration to maintain funding. “This mission is more timely now than ever before,” they wrote in a letter published in the journal Science, citing the threat of future species extinctions linked to human activities and the ongoing conversion of natural habitat.
It is unclear whether the Smithsonian Institution, which receives roughly 60 percent of its funding from the federal government but is independent from the executive branch, would be able to pick up the bureau’s costs. Several former employees said it was unlikely, given the Smithsonian’s own shrinking staff, and they emphasized that taxpayers wouldn’t save any money because the museum houses the staff for free and the current employees would be reassigned.
“We don’t pay rent, light, phones, nothing,” said Robert Fisher, who worked at the bureau from 1971 to 2016, retiring as its collections manager in mammals. “Bottom line, it’s not a big chunk of money.”
Robert Reynolds, whose career there spanned 33 years, more than half as its leader, assumes that budget cutters look at the unit “as low-hanging fruit: Here’s something we can get rid of, and nobody will know the difference.”
But doing so would be a mistake, he cautioned.
“It’s certainly not going to give you the cure for cancer,” Reynolds said. “It’s just going to give you the building blocks of biodiversity — and more and more information about our natural world.”
Sarah Kaplan and Valerie Strauss contributed to this report.