National Wildlife Health Center

...advancing wildlife and ecosystem health

National Wildlife Health Center : A Brief History

While the U.S. Geological Survey celebrated its 125th anniversary, from 1879 to 2004, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center celebrated its 35th anniversary, 1975 to 2010. In honor of these events, the National Wildlife Health Center presents a brief history and a timeline of significant events from its past.

Wildlife health and ecosystem health go hand in hand. The National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) focuses on issues related to wildlife health, which includes a broad spectrum of concerns that also impact public health and domestic animal health. Established in 1975, the NWHC was the first federal program devoted to addressing wildlife disease problems, including responding to wildlife die-offs, technical assistance in the diagnosis, prevention, and control of disease, as well as disease research.

This timeline presents snapshots of significant events from NWHC's history, as well as issues that we are currently addressing. Many items may have a distinct beginning -- such as when the Center became involved with chronic wasting disease and West Nile virus -- but our involvement and partnerships continue as we work to combat and control these and many other diseases.

Some wildlife diseases are well-known because of their potential effect on humans and other animals, such as West Nile virus, chronic wasting disease, rabies, Lyme disease, and others. While some human diseases, like avian influenza and SARS, are potential wildlife health issues. However, other diseases remain obscure to the general public, but can devastate wildlife populations. Combating wildlife disease emergence and re-emergence are top priorities for the staff at the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC).

Devastating wildlife die-offs were the impetus for the creation of the National Wildlife Health Laboratory in 1975. Duck plague claimed over 40,000 waterfowl at a South Dakota Wildlife Refuge in January 1973. Avian botulism has killed more than a million birds in localized outbreaks in one year. Avian cholera has killed more than 70,000 birds in just one outbreak. Large-scale frog and tadpole die-offs continue. West Nile virus quickly spread across the continent after it was discovered in New York in 1999.

Fast response to events like these is essential. Investigating and diagnosing the cause is key to preventing future problems. Specialists in wildlife disease have backgrounds in veterinary medicine, pathology, virology, bacteriology, biochemistry, parasitology, microbiology, and wildlife ecology. Laboratories at NWHC reflect these specialties and are the places where researchers try to unlock the mysteries of disease mechanisms in wildlife.

Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), the NWHC began as an U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laboratory that consolidated existing wildlife disease expertise into a single program, focusing on technical assistance in the diagnosis, prevention and control of disease, as well as on wildlife disease research. In 1996, many Federal Department of Interior biological research laboratories in DOI were transferred to the U.S. Geological Survey, which provided NWHC with new partnering opportunities with other Federal, State, and international agencies that worked with free-ranging wildlife. NWHC maintains an integrated balance between diagnostic investigations and research, and has expanded its expertise from primarily a migratory bird and endangered species disease lab to new areas of disease research and investigation, including health of coral reefs, amphibians, fish and reptiles, and marine mammals.

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Mouse over the top and bottom of the image to scroll up and down through the interactive timeline. Mouse over any year in the timeline to see important events from that year.


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