He Brought Order To America's Wildlife Management Efforts

Conservation Hall of Fame® Inductee: Ira Gabrielson

  • Robert Darland
  • Jun 01, 2000
Ira Gabrielson once complained that working every day in an office is "like serving a prison sentence." And indeed, the son of an Iowa farmer craved being in the outdoors where he could practice field biology. But in a career that spanned more than 65 years, Gabrielson became one of the leaders of America´s conservation movement primarily because of his tireless efforts while working indoors in Washington, D.C.

Born in 1889, Gabrielson earned a degree in biology in 1912, at a time when the science of wildlife management did not exist. Three years later, he went to work for the U.S. government, first as a rodent-control agent and later as a game manager. By 1932, he had become expert enough on wildlife of the West to write his first book, Western American Alpines. During his lifetime, he would write several other landmark books, including Wildlife Conservation (1941), Wildlife Refuges (1943) and Wildlife Management (1951).

In 1935, Gabrielson´s life changed forever when, at the behest of master conservationist J.N. "Ding" Darling, he moved to the nation´s capital and succeeded Darling as chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey. In the years that followed, he worked with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass such key measures as the Duck Stamp Act, which established the sale of migratory bird hunting stamps, and the Pittman-Robertson Act, which levied an excise tax on the sale of sporting firearms and ammunition. The two measures provided the financial base for a nationwide system of wildlife-management areas and research.

In 1940, Gabrielson became the first chief of the newly formed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Under his leadership, the National Wildlife Refuge System rapidly expanded, offering better protection for wetlands and waterfowl. During his watch, the agency founded the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, which became an important component of modern endangered-species protection. He also helped found the Cooperative Wildlife Research Units, which link universities with federal programs and provide wildlife-management graduate students with the training needed to run the nation´s conservation programs.

Gabrielson left the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1946 to accept the presidency of the Wildlife Management Institute, a nonprofit organization that serves as advisor to state and federal conservation agencies. Several years later, noted Purdue University biologist Durward Allen observed that during the Gabrielson years the institute "participated in every kind of activity and had a part in every conservation issue. It brought committees and specialists into service and turned out an unending series of useful books and publications."

Gabrielson was also concerned about international conservation, serving as a delegate to the 1946 International Whaling Conference at the dawn of global whale-protection efforts. Two years later, he was a founder of IUCN--the World Conservation Union and then served as president of the U.S. affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund. He was still active in conservation when he died in 1977. Less than a year later, he was inducted into the NWF Conservation Hall of Fame. Durward Allen, in an obituary, wrote: "It is fair to suspect that his star of public service never reached its zenith, for it was always on the rise."

Today, Gabrielson´s views remain as appropriate as they were when he spoke them. In 1968, for instance, he told participants of the North American Wildlife Conference that protecting the environment "takes a determined people, a people who refuse to accept delays and excuses as substitutes for action. No one, no agency, no single unit of government can protect and improve the environment. It requires the diligent attention of every segment of society."

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