Clinton Hart Merriam
The First Chief
Esteemed, yet controversial, Clinton Hart Merriam, was the first chief of the USDA's Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, an agency that preceded the National Wildlife Research Center. During his tenure, Merriam greatly influenced the manner in which the government studied and responded to wildlife. His seven "life zones" concept, detailing the relationship between animal and plant distribution and temperature patterns is still taught today. However, in steering the Division away from agricultural studies on the economics and control of noxious and predatory animals, Merriam caused difficulties for the very agency he headed.
Clinton Hart Merriam was born in New York on December 5, 1855, to Clinton Levi Merriam and Caroline Hart Merriam. Clinton Levi worked as a businessman and was an elected member of the 42nd and 43rd U. S. Congress.
Through his father, C. Hart Merriam met Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institution in 1871. This led to Merriam's working as a naturalist during the summer of 1872 in Yellowstone, Wyoming as part of the Hayden Geological Survey. lthough offered a position with the survey the following summer, Merriam went on to higher education instead.
He spent a year at Williston Seminary in Massachusetts, then continued on to Yale University to study biology and anatomy in the Sheffield Scientific School. He eventually obtained an M.D. through Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1879. From there, Merriam embarked on a career as a medical doctor, specializing in women's diseases. He retained interest in natural history and published studies of animals while he practiced medicine.
In 1883, Merriam switched from medicine to full-time scientific work. He was a charter member of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) and acted as chair of the Committee on the Migration of Birds. The AOU applied to Congress for funds to study birds with the justification that its work would benefit farmers. Indeed, the work of the AOU sparked such interest that, with the help of Senator Warner Miller of New York, Merriam's cousin and family friend, Congress appropriated $5,000 to fund the Section (or Office or Branch depending upon the literature source) of Economic Ornithology within the USDA's Division of Entomology. After returning from a trip to Europe in 1885, Merriam was hired as head of the Section in the position of Economic Ornithologist. In 1886, the Section of Economic Ornithology became the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy, and Merriam remained as chief. Later the same year, Merriam married his secretary, Virginia Elizabeth Gosnell. The couple had two daughters: Dorothy Merriam Abbot and Zenaida Merriam Talbot.
As mentioned previously, C. Hart Merriam spent much of his career with the USDA ignoring the economic and agricultural aspects of scientific study, focusing rather on his own interests. Unfortunately for him, he was employed by the Bureau of Biological Survey (as his agency was now called) during a time fraught with change, both in the scientific world and society as a whole. Progressive politics began in the late nineteenth century.
The progressives called for reform, and demanded that the government take more of an interest in the populace. Granges, alliances, and Populism grew up across the country after the 1870s, and contributed to making agriculture a more powerful and vocal movement. With a rise in the scientific study of agriculture and a growing western population during the late 1800s and early 1900s, farmers and ranchers called for government assistance in fighting unwanted wildlife. They increasingly requested help in combating pest species, such as rodents, coyotes, and wolves. The Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS), in all its incarnations, had an economic and extension component to its mission, yet the agency did not truly respond to agriculturalists until after C. Hart Merriam's tenure ended.
Rather, during this time, he was developing his celebrated "life zone" theory, which posited that "temperature extremes were the principal desiderata in determining the geographic distribution of organisms." Merriam also championed "splitting" (extensive detailing of taxonomic categories for animals), which elicited criticism among his peers, most notably the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. A fortuitous alliance with Edward H. Harriman, on scientific work in Alaska, led, in 1910, to Harriman's (now) widow, Mary, setting up a trust fund to underwrite Merriam's research activities. He was thus free to resign from an agency that was being pressured, both from within and outside the government, to return to it's original mission.
Throughout his career, Merriam had taken an interest in Amerindian culture. While still chief of the Biological Survey, he had published numerous works on California's Native Americans. His early connection with Teddy Roosevelt, as they debated scientific classification, in fact led Merriam to make attempts to influence the president on Indian affairs. It was fitting, then, that C. Hart Merriam was, finally, able to devote full attention to his ethnographic studies of Pacific Coast natives. He spent his last years studying California Indian tribes and died in 1942 at the age of 86 in Berkeley.
Merriam's work sparked a great deal of debate and interest within the scientific community of his time, and his work on life zones influences biologists and ecologists even today. Most of all, his surveys and research studies on food habits of various animal and bird species remain lasting contributions to the wildlife management field.