Washington, DC —The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) law enforcement program lacks credible leadership that is trusted by its special agents, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Interior Office of Inspector General. At the same time, criminal enforcement of wildlife protection laws under Interior Department jurisdiction has fallen to decade-low levels, according to Justice Department figures compiled and released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
FWS special agents are the federal officers charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty act and other federal laws governing hunting and interstate transportation of wildlife. The 208 special agents are the backbone of the law enforcement program which also includes 111 inspectors and 166 support personnel. The Inspector General transmitted its new “Assessment of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement” to the Secretary of Interior on February 13, 2007. It was the first look by the Inspector General at FWS enforcement since 2001. Key findings include:
- The law enforcement program “lacks decisive leadership from senior management with one interviewee stating that ‘the ship is rudderless at the top’”;
- An “employee survey revealed that less than half of the [law enforcement] employees trust senior management”; and
- The law enforcement program lacks a system of quality control to reliably assess the “efficiency and effectiveness” of its work.
Since 2002, the FWS law enforcement program has moved to a “direct-line authority” model in which there is a separate law enforcement chain-of-command, apart from other FWS programs, such as refuges and ecology. The direct-line model places more emphasis on the role of top leadership. Recently, however, the long-time law enforcement program chief, Kevin Adams, was removed and has not been replaced.
“Our principal federal wildlife protection program is now a headless horseman,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that one of the main reasons to move the enforcement program to direct-line authority was to insulate sensitive investigations from political interference. “The wildlife agents are saying that politics still impedes enforcement and that the reforms have not yet taken hold.”
In 1998 PEER conducted a survey of all FWS special agents in which more than half of agents reported first hand experience of managers interfering “with an investigation in order to protect a prominent individual or powerful group.” One third of agents in that survey cited cases of FWS managers having “compromised ongoing investigations by contacting the target” to cut a deal limiting or excusing liability.
A look at the enforcement record during the Bush administration appears to bear out agents’ concerns. According to Department of Justice figures, criminal referrals of wildlife offenses from all Interior agencies, principally FWS, dropped by more than half since 2000. During the same period, federal prosecutions filed on these cases fell by more than a third (42%).
“Federal wildlife protection appears to be moving in the wrong direction at a time when the need for effective enforcement of these laws has grown more acute,” Ruch added.