Biological Resources Division

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Biological Resources Division

Created to assess, monitor, and research biological resources in United States, the Biological Resources Division (BRD) of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is the non-regulatory biological research component of the United States Department of the Interior. First created in 1994 as the National Biological Survey (NBS), an independent agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior , the NBS was merged with the USGS (also part of the Interior Department) in 1996.

The BRD is the principal biological research and monitoring agency of the federal government. It is responsible for gathering, analyzing, and disseminating biological information in order to support sound management and stewardship of nation's biological and natural resources . It is also directed to foster understanding of biological systems and their benefits to society, and to make biological information available to the public. Although it was created mainly on the impetus of environmental and scientific organizations, the BRD also supports commercial and economic interests in that it seeks to identify opportunities for sustainable resource use. Agriculture and biotechnology are among the industries that stand to benefit from BRD research on new sources of food, fiber, and medicines.

Because it is independent of regulatory agencieswhich are responsible for enforcing lawsthe BRD has no formal regulatory, management, or enforcement roles. Therefore the BRD does not enforce laws such as the Endangered Species Act . Instead the BRD is responsible for gathering data that are scientifically sound and unbiased. The BRD also fosters public-private cooperation. For example, it worked with the International Paper Company in Alabama to develop a management plan for two species of pitcher plants found on company land that were candidates for the Endangered Species List. If it succeeds, this management plan will both preserve the pitcher plant populationspreventing the legal complications of having it listed as a federally endangered speciesand allow continued judicious use of the land and resources.

The Biological Resources Division of the USGS was created in 1994 as an independent agency with the name National Biological Survey. The Survey was established on November 11, 1994, on the recommendations of President Bill Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit. Renamed the National Biological Service (NBS) shortly after its creation, the agency was created by combining the biological research, inventory, and monitoring programs of seven agencies within the Department of the Interior. Built on the model of the Geological Survey, the NBS was established to provide accurate baseline data about ecosystems and species in United States territory. The mission of the NBS was to provide information to support sound stewardship of natural resources on public lands under the administration of the Department of the Interior. Part of its mission was also to foster cooperation among other entities involved in managing, monitoring, and researching natural resources. On October 1, 1996, the NBS was renamed the Biological Resources Division and merged with the United States Geological Survey. The USGS-BRD retains the research and information provision mandates of the NBS. Appointed as the first NBS/BRD director was H. Ronald Pulliam, a professor and research ecologist from of the Institute of Ecology and the University of Georgia in Athens.

The National Biological Service had a predecessor in the Bureau of Biological Survey, which operated as part of the Department of Agriculture from 18851939. The Bureau's first director, C. Hart Merriam, revolutionized biological collection techniques and in 15 years nearly quadrupled the number of known American mammal species. In 1939, the Bureau was transferred to the Department of the Interior, where it was the predecessor to the Fish and Wildlife Service . After its transfer to the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Biological Survey's baseline data gathering and survey functions gradually diminished. The Fish and Wildlife Service now has regulatory and management responsibilities as well as research programs.

In recent years the need for a biological survey, and especially for the production of reliable baseline data, has resurfaced. The resurgence of interest in baseline data results in part from an interest in managing ecosystems, with a focus on stewardship and ecosystem restoration, in place of previous emphasis on individual species management. Managing and restoring ecosystems requires basic data and information on biological indicators, which are often unavailable. Interest in threatened and endangered species, and public participation in environmental organizations probably also contributed to the widespread support for establishing a biological survey.

The BRD is important because it is the only federal agency whose principal mission is to perform basic scientific, biological, and ecological research. As an explicitly scientific research body, the BRD works to incorporate current ecological theory in its research and monitoring programs. Central to the BRD's mission are ideas such as long-term stewardship of resources, maintaining biodiversity , identifying ecological services of biological resources, anticipating climate change, and restoring populations and habitats. Because of its emphasis on basic research the BRD can address current scientific themes that pertain to public policy such as fire ecology, endocrine disruptors (chemicals such as pentachlorophenols [PCBs] that interfere with endocrine and reproductive functions in animals), ecological roles of wetlands , and habitat restoration. The primary purpose of this research activity is to provide land managers, especially within the Department of the Interior, with sound information to guide their management policies.

The BRD has two broad categories of research activities. One focus is on species for which the Department of Interior has trust responsibilities, including endangered species, marine mammals, migratory birds, and anadromous fish such as salmon . Research on these organisms involves studies of physiology, behavior, population dynamics, and mortality . The second general focus is on ecosystems. This class of research is directed at using experimentation, modeling , and observation to produce practical information concerning the complex interactions and functions of ecosystems, as well as human-induced changes in ecosystems.

In addition to these ecological research questions, the BRD is mandated to perform basic classification, mapping, and description functions. The division is responsible for classifying and mapping species within the United States, as well as prospecting for new species. It is also directed to develop a standard classification system for ecological units, biological indicators for ecosystem health , protocols for managing pollution , and guidelines for ecosystem restoration.

Part of this basic assessment function is a series of National Status and Trends Reports, to be released by the BRD every two years. These reports are to assess the health of biological resources and to report trends in their decline or improvement. The first two National Status and Trends Reports were released in 1995 and 1997. The 1995 report included more than 200 contributions on monitoring and population trends for plant, invertebrate, and vertebrate species, as well as summaries on the status of several biological communities and ecosystems. The 1997 report, published in two volumes, discusses factors such as natural processes, harvest exploitation, contaminants, land use , water use, nonindigenous species, and climate change that affect ecosystems in the United States. This status report also includes a major section discussing marine biological resources.

The USGS-BRD also provides a nationwide coordinated research agenda and a set of priorities for biological research. For example, it has undertaken a set of coordinated regional studies of the wide-ranging biological and ecological impacts of wetland distributions in Colorado, California, Texas, and other regions of the United States. Collectively these studies can provide a picture of nationwide trends and conditions, as well as producing coordinated information on restoration techniques, biodiversity issues, and biological indicators, at the same time as regional wetland problems are being addressed. Similar sets of coordinated studies have begun concerning the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment and on the use of prescribed fire as a management technique in a variety of ecosystems.

One of the principal mandates of the BRD is to distribute information. Free sharing of information is intended to maximize the usefulness of research findings. Part of the information sharing program includes substantial use of the Internet to distribute publications. Even the book-size National Status and Trends Reports are being published online to facilitate easy public access to their findings.

In addition to performing its own research the BRD provides coordination and a network of communication between federal agencies, state governments, universities, museums, and private conservation organizations. The National Partnership for Biological Survey, coordinated by the BRD, provides a network for sharing information and technology between federal, state, and other agencies. Participants in the Partnership include the United States Forest Service , the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , the Environmental Protection Agency , the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the Army Corps of Engineers , as well as the Natural Heritage data centers and programs maintained by many states. The network of Natural Heritage programs is coordinated by The Nature Conservancy , a private organization dedicated to preserving habitat and species diversity. Also included in the Partnership are museums and universities nationwide that serve as repositories of information on biological resources and that conduct biological research, a range of non-governmental organizations, international conservation and research groups, Native American groups, private land holders, and resource user groups.

[Mary Ann Cunningham Ph.D. ]



Biological Resources Division. Biological Resources Strategic Science Plan. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1996.

National Biological Service. Our Living Resources. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1995.


US Geological Survey (USGS), Biological Resources Division (BRD), Western Regional Office (WRO), 909 First Ave., Suite #800, Seattle, WA USA 98104 (206) 220-4600, Fax: (206) 220-4624, Email: [email protected], <>

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Biological Resources Division

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