Rhinos, © Guy Standen

Preserving the Thin Green Line

Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs

Wildlife faces escalating criminal threats both domestically and internationally, including illicit trade, unlawful commercial exploitation, illegal destruction of habitat and industrial hazards. Illegal wildlife trade is also related to our national security, with a well-documented link between wildlife smuggling and both organized crime and drug trafficking. Wildlife trade ranks third in monetary importance, just after drug and arms trade. The U.S. supports one of the largest markets after China for both legal and illegal wildlife and wildlife products, including tigers, caviar, coral, snakes, timber, elephant ivory, sea turtles, live birds and numerous species native to the U.S.

customs inspection USFWS

An inspector checks a shipment of dried frogs coming into the country. (Credit: Bill Butcher/USFWS)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Office of Law Enforcement maintains a thin green line of protection for wildlife, both here at home and globally. The office investigates wildlife crimes, enforces regulation of wildlife trade, helps citizens comply with the law and works with other international and U.S. government entities to carry out its mission through wildlife inspectors, special agents and a forensics laboratory. If destructive funding cuts are triggered by the fiscal cliff or an overall budget agreement, all this protection could vanish.

On the Front Line at Ports
The office’s 143 wildlife inspectors are the front line of defense in nearly 40 ports of entry around the country, including in Alaska, California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Texas and Washington. In 2011, they processed about 179,000 declared shipments of wildlife and wildlife products worth more than $2.8 billion, making sure that the shipments did not contain any animals or products that are protected against trade. Even with current funding, the number of inspectors is inadequate to provide full 24-hour coverage at ports, and can only inspect samples of larger mail shipments, or randomly select particular shipments for inspection. This means that many shipments go through with no inspection at all.

Wildlife Investigators
The 222 special agents that work for the Office of Law Enforcement are expert investigators that work, sometimes even going undercover, to break up smuggling rings, stop commercial exploitation of protected U.S. species, and work with states to protect U.S. game species from poaching, which steals both state income and hunting and fishing opportunities. In 2011, special agents investigated more than 13,000 cases.

rhino horn

Evidence gathered during Operation Crash. (Credit: USFWS)

CSI Wildlife
The Office of Law Enforcement also oversees the FWS Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, a real life “CSI Wildlife,” and the only such laboratory in the world dedicated to solving wildlife crimes. Before the lab was established in 1988, law enforcement officers had little or no ability to receive expert wildlife laboratory services in pursuing criminals. Now the lab identifies the species or parts of the animals being exploited, determines the cause of death, decides if a crime has occurred, and uses the evidence to link suspect, victim and crime scene.

Once a crime against wildlife is verified, the FWS Office of Law Enforcement works with other federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice and sometimes state agencies, to pursue it in court. Here are just a few examples of cases that the office has investigated and prosecuted in recent years — crimes that could otherwise have gone unpunished:

  • Operation Crash” was a nationwide Fish and Wildlife Service crackdown on those involved in the black market trade of endangered rhino horns — more than 450 rhinos have been killed this year alone.
  • Agents seized one ton of smuggled elephant ivory from a Philadelphia art store — one of the largest seizures of elephant ivory on record.
  • In Washington State, the office investigated the destruction of more than 400 bank swallow nests and over 3,000 eggs during the 2010 nesting season.
  • In Texas, they looked into the illegal harvest of alligator gar, an important sport fish, which was then being sold in Japan.
  • The office prosecuted the largest deer poaching case in Kansas history, an operation that led up to 60 clients to illegally kill about 160 deer.
  • The office intervened when bald and golden eagles were being killed and sold in Washington — during their investigation, agents seized 57 bald and golden eagle tails and 52 golden eagle wings.
  • An inquiry found that endangered pallid sturgeon were being illegally harvested for caviar in the Mississippi, Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
  • The office undertook a multi-year undercover investigation of unlawful international trafficking in sea turtle parts and products.
  • Agents uncovered more than 40 tons of endangered coral being smuggled into the port of Portland, Oregon.
  • An investigation found that jaguar skins were being smuggled and sold in Florida, Texas and elsewhere by e-commerce.
  • Work of the agents and the forensics lab resulted in successful prosecution and sentencing for the intentional killing of an endangered Florida panther.
  • They discovered that wild-caught turtles were being illegally shipped to China from Florida.
  • A three-year investigation uncovered the unlawful trafficking of Arizona state-protected reptiles.

The Office of Law Enforcement is already severely underfunded, making it a challenge to meet the rapidly escalating threats to wildlife in the U.S. and around the world. Any further cuts will hinder these crucial enforcement efforts even more. Please tell your members of Congress that you support a balanced approach to address the budget deficit — one that does not include further cuts to important and beneficial wildlife conservation programs.