Birds on the home front: Wildlife conservation in the western United States during world war II

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The environmental consequences of war extend far beyond the battlefield. The pursuit of resources to sustain lengthy conflicts has oft en led to deforestation, soil erosion, and disruption of riverine environments as countries mobilized for war. Many of the contributors to this book argue that a nation's success or failure in war oft en depends on its ability to harness natural resources for military ends. An awareness that environmental change as a result of warfare can occur outside the areas of direct confl ict is particularly important in relation to the United States, which was largely spared martial combat within its borders throughout the twentieth century. 1 Even though no battles were fought in the continental United States, the increased demand for natural resources during wartime is a vivid indication of the environmental consequences of sustaining military campaigns overseas.2 The connection between wildlife and war might appear strained, given that by the twentieth century most so- called game animals were no longer hunted commercially in the United States. Wildlife certainly played a significant role in earlier conflicts. In the nineteenth century, for example, the U.S. Army relied on bison and deer to feed troops engaged in military campaigns against Native Americans.3 Later it attempted to exterminate the bison in parts of the American Midwest in order to undermine the resistance of bison- dependent Native American communities.4 Yet by the beginning of World War I, game animals no longer constituted a major food source for most Americans; so, unlike natural resources such as timber and grain, government officials did not regard them as critical to the war effort. While game animals may have been exempt from military uses, they, along with other wildlife, were directly and indirectly affected by wartime management and production of multiple natural resources. Timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest modified the habitats of species dependent on mature forest stands. The federal government identified spruce wood as vital to airplane construction during World War I, which led to selective logging of the species in lowland regions of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula. Likewise, both world wars proved a boon to western mining operations, which supplied copper and other minerals crucial to military production.5 These wars drastically impacted conservation programs in the western United States. Federal land agencies, such as the Forest Service and the National Park Service, suffered severe cutbacks in funding and personnel. In World War I the National Park Service yielded to pressure from ranchers who claimed that permitting their herds to forage on park lands would help to provide beef for U.S. troops and allowed livestock grazing in California's Sequoia National Park. Once again in the Second World War, timber companies sought access to Sitka spruce in the Olympic National Park. The Park Service agreed to some logging but successfully resisted postwar attempts to reduce the size of the park.6 Mobilization offered the perfect justification for reducing or eliminating environmental protections in the name of national security. Arguably, World War II had a greater effect on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)-known until 1940 as the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey- Than any other federal land- management agency. The agency was responsible for overseeing enforcement of federal wildlife laws, particularly those pertaining to migratory birds; for managing national wildlife refuges; and, most notoriously, for running a predator- eradication program in the western United States.7 Poorly funded and staffed, the bureau languished for the first three decades of the twentieth century. In the early 1930s some conservationists called for its abolition, since it had proved unable to stop the decline in waterfowl populations. After the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and the enactment of his New Deal conservation programs, the bureau's fortunes began to improve. Federal officials appointed by President Roosevelt, such as Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, sought a greater role for government agencies in conservation. Using funds and labor from the federally sponsored Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Bureau of Biological Survey established dozens of new refuges along avian migration routes and initiated programs to rehabilitate damaged marshes. These programs signaled a profound shift in the government's role in wildlife protection. Long the handmaiden of farmers and irrigators, who oft en destroyed wildlife habitat, the government finally demonstrated leadership in stemming the decline of game- bird species, such as ducks and geese. World War II put an end to most of these programs. Mobilization for the war placed a multitude of pressures on what was now the Fish and Wildlife Service and threatened to undermine the foundation of the conservation program that FWS personnel had so enthusiastically cultivated in the 1930s. This chapter analyzes the Fish and Wildlife Service's efforts to conserve migratory birds in the western United States during the war years. It also explores the consequences of technologies originally developed and used in a military context on the management of bird refuges in the years immediately after the war. I argue that the war's impact on migratory birds and on the agency that managed them was not entirely negative. Wars oft en cause collateral damage to forests, rivers, and coastlines, but the reduction of hunting pressures in the continental United States while the country was at war may also have led to collateral productivity. Duck and geese populations increased in the early 1940s, partially because fuel rationing and restrictions on ammunition made it difficult for sportsmen to travel to refuges and hunt waterfowl. To tease out these connections, I will briefly discuss specific ecological conditions and avian conservation programs in the western United States (especially in Oregon and California) in the late 1930s, the management of migratory birds and refuges between 1941 and 1945, and the war's lasting influence on bird management in the region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWar and The Environment
Subtitle of host publicationMilitary Destruction in The Modern Age
PublisherTexas A&M University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)1603441158, 9781603441155
StatePublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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