Smithsonian set to take over USGS Biological Survey Unit

By Madilyn Jarman

The Biological Survey Unit originally researched agricultural pests like rodents, but its collection has expanded along with its research.

The Smithsonian Institution is poised to take over the U.S. Geological Survey’s Biological Survey Unit after federal funding for the 108-year-old unit ends this year.

The Biological Survey Unit was set to be eliminated during budget negotiations, but the division received funding in the omnibus spending package approved last month, allowing it to stay open until Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. After that USGS plans to turn over management of the more than 1 million specimens in the division’s collection to the Smithsonian.

The collection is currently housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where six USGS staff researchers maintain the rare, historic specimens of North American mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

The BSU was created in 1885 as part of the Department of Agriculture and charged with researching farm pests, but research efforts soon expanded to general surveys of a variety of species. Today staff researchers produce scientific publications and identification guides collaborate with researchers from around the world who need to access the collection.

The BSU has an annual budget of $1.6 million and is housed within the Smithsonian at no cost. USGS is currently working on a transition plan. Subsuming the division would double the size of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s collection.

Critics worry closing the BSU could interfere with the public’s ability to access the collection, and that the Smithsonian’s own shrinking staff would be unable to maintain the collection, which contains irreplaceable specimens, some more than a century old.

Madilyn Jarman is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Madilyn's articles.