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.

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Gayle Worland