FWS history buff tells tales of 'ratty' polar bears, agency icons

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- The Fish and Wildlife Service historian works in a windowless basement, but his office is anything but ho-hum.

Mark Madison is surrounded by taxidermied rhinoceroses, tigers, bears and ducks. He's watched by a portrait of an agency icon, ecologist Rachel Carson, whose 1962 expose on pesticides, "Silent Spring," spurred the creation of the modern environmental movement. And staring out from a lower shelf is a polar bear flashing gnarled yellow teeth whose muzzle is missing fur.

"This ratty polar bear -- he doesn't look like much," but there's a good story behind him, Madison said. The bear head was sent back to the United States in 1909 by legendary Arctic explorer Robert Peary from the first expedition to reach the North Pole.

Madison, 50, has a million good stories. A Wisconsin native with a doctorate in the history of science, he's been the FWS historian and has guarded the agency relics in the National Conservation Training Center here since 1999. It's his dream job, and he seems almost giddy when he talks shop.

He's the only historian the agency has ever had. "I haven't been fired yet," he joked.

The archive has two full-time employees, Madison and a museum curator. He said he does the interpretation while the curator preserves all the objects and maintains the archive, "which is wonderful, so I don't spill coffee on Teddy Roosevelt documents and stuff like that. "

Some of the most eye-catching artifacts in Madison's shop are taxidermied endangered species that were confiscated by FWS agents. Consider the tiger that's poised with its mouth open, ready to attack. That was nabbed from a house in Texas. There's a small black bear holding an acorn-shaped bowl -- designed to be an ashtray or candy holder. And the archive recently received a plastic bag with about 10 pounds of ivory crushed in a symbolic Obama administration effort to condemn wildlife trafficking.

The dead ducks come from around 1900, when they were legal decoys.

"The problem is they're taxidermied with arsenic, so they can poison small ponds," Madison said. "Also, they're not really decoys," he added, given that they're real ducks.

Most of the illegal goods retained by FWS are shipped out to a repository near Denver, but Madison and his co-workers keep some in the basement archive for display in the training center museum upstairs.

While the big animals are the flashiest items in the room, most of the archive is made up of papers, books and photos. Included is the pen President Franklin Roosevelt used to sign the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act -- which authorized the collection of a sales tax on firearms and ammunition to support habitat conservation and hunting education -- and a pen President Lyndon Johnson used to sign the Wilderness Act in 1964.

The archive also houses documents that tell the story of Paul Kroegel, a German immigrant who loved pelicans. Kroegel became the nation's first wildlife refuge manager in 1903 after President Theodore Roosevelt officially barred hunting on Florida's Pelican Island, a breeding ground for native birds.

Madison pulled out a binder from rows of file cabinets and pointed to a document signed by Roosevelt's Agriculture secretary and dated March 24, 1903, promising to pay Kroegel $1 per month for his duties. A separate document from April of that year provided one page of instructions for Kroegel. Basically, it told him to keep trespassers away from the island.

The money wasn't great, even back then. The annual U.S. household income averaged $750 in 1901, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kroegel was also a boat builder and had a small citrus orchard and tried to make some extra cash by giving tours.

"We actually have a sign he painted where he offered to take people on a tour of Pelican Island for like a buck a boatload. You can't do that today," Madison said.

In 1926, Kroegel lost his job. Madison showed off a letter from the chief of the Agriculture Department's Bureau of Biological Survey after pelicans had stopped using the island. "Inasmuch as the birds have discontinued the use of Pelican Island as a nesting and breeding place, we have decided to discontinue your services," Kroegel was told.

"He was the first employee furloughed," Madison joked. Then he displayed Kroegel's badge, gun and pipe, which are kept in a box in the archive.

The archives also contain more than 800 oral histories -- mostly of former FWS employees. That includes stories of Leroy Sowl, a former employee whose job was to try to move native people off the Aleutian Islands off Alaska ahead of a Japanese invasion during World War II; Edwin "Phil" Pister, who carried the last known population of the endangered Owens pupfish through the desert from a pond slated for destruction; and tales from Shirley Briggs, a former co-worker of famed "Silent Spring" author Rachel Carson, who recalled her first impression of Carson was that she was "more fun than anybody else."

Carson's magnifying glass and a signed copy of "Silent Spring" are also in the archive. Carson had sent that particular copy to Mr. A.H. Donahoe Jr., in Oak Park, Ill. She enclosed a note returning a dollar bill that he had sent her for postage. "You were far too generous in your postage allowance," she wrote.


'A home for the agency'

On a recent rainy day, Madison was tasked with teaching a group of rookie FWS staffers about the history of their agency.

His course is part of a boot camp of sorts that new employees are required to take within their first year on the job (although some in the class had been at the agency longer). It's a four-day course at a 532-acre training campus that used to be farmland along the Potomac River in West Virginia built in 1997. Shepherdstown is about 75 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.

New employees meet their counterparts from around the country while getting a crash course in FWS's structure, mission and history, among other things. A recent course had roughly 30 participants from about a dozen states, including Alaska, Mississippi, Rhode Island and Florida. They all wrote their names on sticky notes affixed to their home states on a map at the front of the classroom.

The employees had a range of jobs, too. Among them were a data manager and geographer from the Region 1 office in Portland, Ore.; an office assistant from Ventura, Calif.; and a science coordination specialist from the agency's Arlington, Va., headquarters.

During the course, participants stay in one of four lodges all named after famous conservationists. Those staying at Aldo Leopold Lodge will find photos of the famous Forest Service ecologist in their hotel-like rooms with his 1949 classic "A Sand County Almanac" and his other books on the table.

After classes, they can rent kayaks to take out on the Potomac or buy a fishing license at the front desk. For meals, or to get a beer after class, there's a huge commons area with several brews on tap. Recent selections included Yuengling Traditional Lager; two beers from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md.; and a few others. There's a tule elk head mounted above the bar and historical photos of conservationists like Kroegel and Sierra Club founder John Muir hanging around the room.

FWS employees aren't the only ones who use the training center. Most of the conservation courses -- on topics ranging from shorebird ecology to teaching youth outdoor skills -- are open to anyone, and companies and other agencies sometimes book space there. The facility hosted Mideast peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2000. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns attended a showing there of his 2009 series on the national parks, and his staff used the FWS archives while researching the documentary, Madison said.

"When this place opened, they didn't want it just to be a training facility, although that's its primary role; they also wanted it to be like a home for the agency," Madison said. "I think the analogy they might have been thinking of is -- the military has homes and museums and so on at West Point or the Army War College, so they designed the structure around a museum, which is at the center point; they built our first national-oriented archive.

"Then after they did all that, they said maybe we should hire a historian," he added, laughing.

As he showed students around the basement archives, Madison urged them to keep history in mind once they got back to their jobs.

"What you do is going to be evaluated by somebody 100 years from now, so you should try to do something important. Try to do something that's ethically right, try to be a conservationist in action," he said. "Become one of those black-and-white pictures upstairs -- not too soon, you have to be dead to be one of those. Maybe in 60, 70 years or so.

"But you should think about how history will judge you and what you do. You should ask yourself every day, every way, 'Am I making the world a better place for wildlife?' That's our functional mission."

Twitter: @rbravender | Email:

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