The Wild Life

Indiana Jones sits at a desk in his Evergreen home, typing his memoirs. In this particularly outrageous and harrowing chapter, he is chasing illegal duck hunters through soup-thick fog in a small boat, when unexpectedly--crash! He hurtles into the side of a larger vessel. He's thrown backward into the water, scooped beneath the bigger boat and trapped underwater. The chest-high rubber waders he's wearing have torn and are filling like water balloons, sending him straight down to the slimy river bottom. Meanwhile, the churning of the propeller from the big boat overhead is bouncing his body and his brain like a buoy in a storm. The bad guys are now the least of his troubles. Quickly running short of air, our hero wrestles a military case knife out of his belt and cuts himself free. Miraculously, he lives to tell the tale, catches the villains, eventually gets promoted and moves to Colorado.

Indiana Jones is actually Terry Grosz, a six-foot-four, 300-pound bear of a man, and he is not making this stuff up. Until last June, when he retired at the age of 57, Grosz was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's assistant regional director for law enforcement in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nebraska, Kansas and North and South Dakota. A large part of his job was supervising the hair-raising, stomach-flipping overt and covert adventures of the two dozen other Indiana Joneses who worked under him--not for the thrill of it, but ultimately to protect some of the most fragile and vulnerable among us: struggling songbirds, threatened trout, hapless ducks, regal elk and other creatures who face two distinctly human dangers: "Greed," as Grosz explains, "and ego."

Nobody has ever written a movie or launched a TV series about the "special agents" of the Fish and Wildlife Service. While their counterparts at the FBI bask in the sexy glamour of dark suits and sunglasses, these guys and gals wade through swamps and slink through forests, sometimes within the gunsights of thieves who slaughter wildlife for profit or a perverse sense of revenge. In undercover operations, they might hang out in the backwoods with illicit hunting "guides" who demand $10,000 "membership fees" to their exclusive clubs (we'll find you a fine four-legged trophy to shoot at close range--never mind the trespassing or the fact that hunting season is over) or set up phony taxidermy shops that cater to a seedy clientele. Some of these agents are master horsemen; others can pilot a plane or slip a canoe down a river without a whisper. As law-enforcement officers, they must be well-versed in both animal behavior and dozens of federal wildlife laws; they must be as skilled and surefooted in the courtroom as they are in the field. "These guys," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), "are the studs of the federal government."

But as the illegal wildlife trade grows, funding for these agents has stayed flat. In fact, until recently, it's seemed that even their own agency hardly knew they were there.

Terry Grosz started jotting down his on-the-job exploits as a gift for his three grown kids--a cop, a youth counselor and another wildlife lawman like his dad. The project grew into Wildlife Wars: The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden, a collection of twenty short stories based on Grosz's early years as a state game warden in California. But this book is just the beginning. In his home office lined with award plaques and wooden ducks, Grosz continues to churn out reams of tales from his years as a special agent in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Washington, D.C., and Colorado. "Terry is a natural-born storyteller," says Stephen Topping, editorial director of Johnson Books in Boulder, which will publish Grosz's book this fall. Each yarn is full of close calls with Mother Nature, wild critters and savage lawbreakers--and the author swears they're all true. "We're taking his word for it," says Topping.

There's no reason not to. Each of the nation's 9,500 federal and state game wardens and special agents has a repertoire of riveting stories about nasty bad guys and tight scrapes. The 222 special agents for Fish and Wildlife are the most elite of this group, considered "the thin green line" and trained side by side with Secret Service agents and officers for the Drug Enforcement Administration. While state game wardens concentrate on their local hunting regulations and refuge agents are confined to refuges, special agents can enforce any federal wildlife law--ranging from the Endangered Species Act to the Marine Mammal Protection Act--anywhere in the country.

"It's not uncommon for special agents to work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for a stretch of five or six months a year," says Grosz. "Some of the hardest disciplinary work I had to do in the service was to make my guys stay home once in a while." The job takes a toll on marriages and family life and can land the G-men on the wrong end of a shotgun. Special agents usually work solo, always in plainclothes, and when undercover, they had better blend in with the locals. "If you can't talk hunting and fishing and be able to smoke a cigar with some of these guys, you're not going to be worth the powder to blow you to hell," says Grosz.

Miles from civilization, "they're often contacting people who have loaded guns, who are often drinking and have been violating the law," says Neill Hartman, supervisory special agent for the eight-state Western region. Some agents focus on elaborate organized crime rings, others on small-time scoundrels with a steady network of customers. But either way, a bullet's a bullet. "It can take some unique people skills to try to diffuse a situation" before it comes to a shootout, says Hartman.

"These men and women have an extremely dangerous job. You're out in the field with an armed criminal, and there's no backup down the road," agrees Robert Anderson, a senior prosecutor and one of five attorneys who prosecute criminal violations of federal wildlife laws for the U.S. Justice Department.

A good agent usually stays alive with the help of "soul, instinct, a guardian angel--whatever you want to call it," says Grosz. "There's something there that tells you, 'Don't go there!' and you stop. The impulse is strong enough that you physically stop. And that's when you actually the see the danger, just a second or two later.

"People don't get into law enforcement for the money, or the hell of it, or the action," says Grosz. "It's almost like they have a bent gene. Most of us never worry about getting shot--we just flat don't." After a disgruntled hunter in California unloaded 208 pellets of birdshot in Grosz's back, legs and neck, the agent put himself on the night shift so he'd get home just about the time that his wife, Donna, a schoolteacher, was heading off to work. That way he could keep his injuries a secret; he didn't want her to worry, and he didn't spill the beans until nearly five years later.

In the West, some of the biggest cases involve illegal big-game hunts, the death of birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits interstate and international trafficking in protected wildlife. Along with uniformed law enforcement officers from across the country, the special agents sometimes set up wildlife check stations on the road during hunting season. The roadblocks may continue for three days solid and help agents find "lots and lots of violations"--invalid hunting licenses and illegal takes, not to mention stolen vehicles, illegal aliens and drugs, Hartman says.

The more naive lawbreakers are left to state courts while the kingpins are hauled into federal court, where the penalties are more severe. Any operation first has to get a green light from the U.S. attorney's office or a Department of Justice lawyer like Anderson before it begins, and laws have to be followed to the letter to build an airtight case.

"The agents that I work with have chosen careers that are largely misunderstood by the public and guard a resource that most people care about but probably don't think about very much," says Anderson, who's prosecuted walrus poachers from Alaska and cockatoo-egg smugglers from Australia, among others. The special agents must know how to handle witnesses, avoid entrapment and master the delicate art of search and seizure. From the outback to the courthouse, "these guys," says Anderson, "prepare their cases better than any other law-enforcement agents" in the federal government.

Still, they admit they're up against a lot. And like the animals they're supposed to protect, they're losing.

"It's absolutely amazing," says Grosz. "There is so much money in the sale of wildlife today, be it fur, feathers, claws, meat, ivory, teeth, bones, blood, hides--it's absolutely unreal. There's less and less wildlife, there's more and more people, there's more and more money. Mix money with a critter, and the critter always loses."

One-third of the world's population still practices traditional medicine, creating an insatiable demand for the likes of tiger bones, bear gall bladders, seal penises and tortoise eggs, all purported to have healing qualities or that Viagra sort of magic. "Today," Anderson says, "a gram of ground rhino horn is worth more than a gram of cocaine."

Show the cojones to sneak into a national park and take down three bighorn sheep--worth up to $44,000 each if they carry an impressive rack of full-curl horns--and "there are people who will seek you out," says Grosz. "Wealthy people, politically placed people, well-known people, movie actors." Among the jet set, all things Western are the rage. The black market swoops up live eagles and peregrine falcons, cacti and exotic plants. "You have collectors from Saudi Arabia, Germany, England, the Netherlands, South Africa--crooked as a dog's hind leg, but they've got contacts, and they'll come and collect the stuff they're after."

The Colorado-based agents' high-flying adventure stories are laced with tragic excess: Migrating ducks illegally "baited" with bags of corn spread over a marsh, then shot down by the hundreds. Bighorn sheep shot with a silencer, their heads cut off and the bodies left to rot. "This is taxpayer property," says Grosz who, like most of the special agents, has a deep reverence for wildlife but still enjoys a fair and legal hunt.

Sometimes the agents get calls from other hunters who are angry at money-grubbers ruining the sport--but the best informants "are divorced wives," says Roger Gephart, senior resident agent for Fish and Wildlife's four-man Denver law-enforcement office. "I love 'em. They want revenge." And they'll supply the photos, videos and phone numbers to build a case.

"Basically for any trophy animal, there's a price on your head," Gephart explains. "If you're the biggest and the best, someone out there wants to kill you."

The State of Colorado sells 340,000 big-game tags a year for legal hunts; state game wardens go after those who bag more than their share. One of Gephart's Denver-based agents, however, went undercover with a Colorado Division of Wildlife agent to infiltrate the operation of Michael McGlone, a guide-for-hire from Steamboat Springs. In September 1995, McGlone took several hunters to stalk deer and elk on private lands and at Dinosaur National Monument in northwestern Colorado, which is overseen by the National Park Service. Special agent Leo Suazo managed to buddy up to McGlone and was invited along to cook for the group. Suazo collected evidence on the sly; last fall McGlone pleaded guilty and was fined $10,000 and sentenced to twelve months and one day in jail. The other hunters, including a doctor from Kansas and clients from Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida, also received a variety of fines and probation time.

Despite successful stings like "Operation Dinosaur," most special agents feel unappreciated by the public--and even by their bosses in Washington. In a nationwide PEER survey of agents (with 61 percent responding), more than 70 percent said that law enforcement lacks the funding and staff to carry out its job. More than 80 percent agreed that "non-law enforcement managers overseeing investigations often inject political considerations into what should be strictly law enforcement decisions," and 74 percent agreed with this statement: "Overall, I feel that the Fish & Wildlife Service law enforcement program is getting worse."

Prosecution of environmental crimes across the board has dropped precipitously during the Clinton administration, according to a study by PEER. Under agency head Jamie Rappaport Clark, Fish and Wildlife has developed a reputation for trying to keep all of the people happy all of the time, which keeps nobody happy at all. "The underlying reason [for problems] in this agency is that they just don't want to piss anybody off," says Ruch of PEER. "Maybe George Bush was the environmental president and we just missed it."

Fish and Wildife already has a difficult mandate, as local and state governments scream for growth and environmentalists holler for habitat salvation. "We have a lot of bosses out there," concedes Hartman.

Since he joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 1972, the number of federal wildlife laws that agents must enforce have nearly tripled, Hartman says. And although the size of the illegal wildlife trade is now second only to the global drug trade, wildlife law-enforcement funding has not kept pace.

While Fish and Wildlife's total budget for the Western region increased 21 percent, to $61,750,000, between 1994 and 1999, its budget for regional law enforcement rose only .02 percent in the same period. Hartman's agents make do with $3.1 million per year to cover everything from salaries to vehicles, office equipment and clerical assistance. Special agents watch, disgruntled, as money is poured into refining nature trails and building fancy viewing platforms and state-of-the-art outhouses for tourists. "So it's all nice for you to go on your nature walk to look for the animals," complains a U.S. agent who asked not to be named, "but at some point you're not going to see anything, because pretty soon it's going to be all gone."

"Law enforcement is always seen as the bad kid on the block," explains Hartman. Unlike refuges, which fall into congressional districts, or species that may have the backing of environmental groups, law enforcement has no outspoken advocates on Capitol Hill. So increasingly, the special agents have been opening their doors to the media to help the world understand their dilemma.

They're also working on more "proactive" efforts--such as a project to identify and force oil-field owners to clean up open oil pits. An estimated two million migratory birds die each year in oil and mining wastewater ponds in the western U.S. Insects often first get trapped in the oil; as they struggle, their movement lures in bats, songbirds and mammals who in turn attract larger predators such as hawks and owls. From his seat on the appropriations committee for the Department of the Interior, former U.S. representative David Skaggs found $750,000 for a three-year program to educate industry and force it to clean up the pits.

As a small minority in a sometimes vengeful government bureaucracy, the special agents lose their steely nerves when it comes to speaking frankly with reporters. Even agents far outside of Denver insist on talking off the record, but they do have plenty of gripes: Although law enforcement employs twenty fewer agents than are authorized by Congress, for example, there have been no new recruits for two years because managers want to funnel their scarce dollars into existing staff and operations. And many agents are getting so fed up, they're opting for early retirement at age fifty. "In years past," says one agent, "you had to blast 'em out with dynamite."

The agency's law-enforcement chief has only an advisory position; the real directives come from Fish and Wildlife's regional heads, who may or may not have any background in law enforcement. The 400-member Federal Wildlife Officers' Association, founded in 1986 to fend off pay reductions threatened by Fish and Wildlife, wants to see law-enforcement decisions made by officials trained in law enforcement and someone at the top of the ranks with real power, says Kevin O'Brien, a special agent in New Hampshire and the group's president.

Dozens of special agents banded together last year to fight their own agency's proposal to ease baiting restrictions for migratory birds--a spineless bow to political pressure and the hunting lobby, they claimed--but lost. The defeat pushed morale even lower and prompted the PEER survey--whose dismal results weren't even addressed by the agency's higher-ups, says PEER's Rob Perks. "These are salt-of-the- earth guys who are just outraged by the lack of ethics," he says.

The outrage may finally be getting through. Earlier this year, Fish and Wildlife lobbied President Clinton's budget-writers for an extra $3 million for law enforcement in 2000. The request is now pending before the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. Fish and Wildlife has also launched "a major budget initiative for fiscal year 2001," says Kevin Adams, the agency's chief officer of law enforcement. Adams won't disclose even a ballpark figure for the requested increase but says another $3 million would be in the "modest" range. Law enforcement hasn't been fully staffed or funded since 1984, he says, adding that "since then, it's been 'tighten your belt.'" And while he won't fully credit the agent survey, Adams notes that at last "the service has recognized that we have a serious funding shortfall. For our whole force, this is the most important thing we can do. It's become a matter of survival."

On June 4, some of the bounty collected by the special agents--and their colleagues in the wildlife-inspection division--will go up for sale in Denver. The heaps of reptile-skin boots and coral jewelry might help law enforcement's bottom line, but only because of a hard-fought battle by the agents themselves and a former Colorado legislator.

The National Wildlife Repository, which was moved to Colorado from Ashland, Oregon, in 1995, serves as the tomb for animal skins and wildlife parts. All confiscated goods--ranging from deer musk "laryngitis pills" to fur coats made from sea-otter pelts--eventually wind up on the loading dock of the repository, a squat, red-brick warehouse at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City. Every item spends five days in deep-freeze to kill any pests before being counted, catalogued and stored on tall metal shelves. Ivory and scrimshaw is kept in a humidified vault to keep it from cracking.

About one-third of the 300,000 items in the warehouse are headed for the auction block in an effort to raise $1 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service. The remains of animals on the endangered species list are not for sale; they'll be donated to schools or museums or used to train wildlife inspectors. But legal items like boots, belts, shoes, handbags or jewelry that were seized for other reasons--the lack of an import permit, for example--will be auctioned to the highest bidders, much like the high-speed boats and fancy cars seized by other federal agents in big-money drug busts.

The sale, run by an auction house, will take place at the Holiday Inn near I-70 and Chambers Road. But in an orchestrated "media day" on May 27, reporters and TV crews will swarm around the repository like flies over roadkill. Fish and Wildlife staffers will be on hand to preview the attractions and educate the world on an estimated $4 billion illegal wildlife trade that only promises to continue booming.

A huge stuffed polar bear dominates the repository's education room, where Girl Scout troops and science classes sometimes stop in for a lesson in wildlife exploitation. The faint scent of mothballs and a sadness hang over the kitsch piled on long tables along the walls: an alligator head with a cheap tin ashtray wedged into the skull; lush gray seal fur stitched onto a cartoonish plastic Eskimo doll; the varnished body of a frog made to stand upright, holding a wooden guitar. There are pills distilled from bear gall, keychains made from lizard arms, and "essence of tortoise" soap. Some of the craftsmanship is hauntingly exquisite, as it is in a series of concentric balls carved in ivory to resemble delicate lace. Some, like a polar bear rug that looks like it was pulled off the set of a James Bond movie, seem like embarrassing relics of another era.

"Some of this is very gaudy. Some of it is very degrading," says Bernadette Hilbourn, head of the repository and a twenty-year veteran of law enforcement for Fish and Wildlife. "I see a lot of waste, items that you don't have use for. When I see some of these things," she says, stroking an alligator loafer, "I think that these people can't possibly appreciate the value of the resource--except as a shoe."

Most of these items were found by the agency's 93 wildlife inspectors stationed at borders, seaports and airports to check for illegal imports and exports. The inspectors are painstakingly trained to differentiate among snake skins and fur types, to spot a smuggled item--such as a pair of caiman-skinned boots camouflaged under a layer of suede--or to eyeball suspicious characters, like the occasional tourist wearing a large hat to conceal the live monkey underneath.

Special agents like Terry Grosz and his colleagues played a role in confiscating some of these illegal goods--including, in the education room, a table full of eagle feathers and headdresses. Only members of Indian tribes can request parts of these threatened birds; the waiting list is nearly three years long. About 1,000 dead eagles come to the repository each year; the birds are plucked and processed by a Fish and Wildlife specialist in a back room that becomes quite pungent in the summer heat.

In the past, profits from wildlife auctions went back into the general U.S. treasury. But thanks to legislation pushed through Congress by Representative Skaggs just before his retirement last fall, the proceeds from next month's wildlife auction will be funneled into wildlife preservation and education programs. That will free up another $750,000 for Fish and Wildlife's law-enforcement efforts. Although it's not a major windfall for an entire division that gets about $35 million each year, it will help. But even this money--made as a direct result of the agents' hard work--has to travel through a bureaucratic maze before it benefits them.

But when the bureaucratic jungle gets to be too much, special agents can always retreat to the wild--the very reason they got into this business to begin with. "Those that make it in this job have a compassion for the welfare of wildlife and the environment and a good sense of right and wrong," says special agent Gephart. "For some folks, sitting out in the rain and cold all day is not very exciting. We happen to like that kind of thing."

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