Enforcing the Law for Endangered Species

By Cleva, Sandra | Endangered Species Bulletin, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Enforcing the Law for Endangered Species


Cleva, Sandra, Endangered Species Bulletin


In 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) launched a new era in wildlife law enforcement. Federal officers had been on the wildlife "beat" since 1900, but their work focused primarily on protecting waterfowl and supporting State management of game species. The ESA, however, safeguards hundreds of animals and plants throughout the world and hundreds more that are covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), making U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement part of a global force protecting wildlife.

Our special agents investigate nearly 5,000 cases each year involving ESA violations. Crimes range from take and habitat destruction to large-scale commercial exploitation. Our wildlife inspectors, stationed at major ports and border crossings, monitor wildlife imports and exports, providing a frontline defense against illegal wildlife trade. Forensic specialists at our agency's National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory support enforcement efforts by identifying from which species seized wildlife parts and products came; developing scientific evidence to link suspects, wildlife "victims," and crime scenes; and determining the cause of death in cases where illegal take is suspected.

Cases involving take, such as wolf shootings, often grab headlines, but our enforcement mission is far more complex. Protecting listed species demands initiative. Outreach to ranchers in Wyoming, for example, gave reintroduced gray wolves (Canis lupus) a better chance of surviving outside of Yellowstone National Park. Backcountry patrols in grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) territory and educational programs for guides, outfitters, and hunters help prevent both bears and people from being injured or killed. Agents have also worked to defuse conflicts along the California coast, where shellfishing companies are concerned about the apparent range expansion of southern sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis).

Preventive enforcement preserves opportunities for species recovery. In Florida, special agents conduct coastal boat patrols, enforcing speed limits that shield manatees (Trichechus manatus) from deadly collisions. A cooperative program at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California keeps the largest active breeding colony of western snowy plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus) free from human intrusion during the breeding season. Although closing a Massachusetts beach to vehicle traffic to protect nesting piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) was not popular, our officers met with area residents to promote public cooperation.

Habitat intrusion can, of course, escalate to habitat destruction. In Florida, special agents brought charges against a citrus farmer who cleared some of the last remaining Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) habitat. Recent habitat investigations in California have focused on protected kangaroo rats (Dipodomys spp.), lizards, butterflies, frogs, snails, and the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly (Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis). In Rialto, for example, industrial plants developed a habitat conservation plan (HCP) and obtained an incidental take permit for this rare nectar-eating species, the fly world's equivalent of a hummingbird.

Fines and penalties are needed when landowners or developers destroy habitat essential to the survival of protected species. But law enforcement also works to prevent such losses by supporting the development of HCPs and monitoring compliance once the plan is in place. Our agents in Utah, for example, successfully helped promote HCPs for the threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens). …

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