JIM BARTEE is bored. So are the other agents in the law-enforcement office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Slidell, La. Since February, they've hardly left the office. People have called to report illegal bird kills, poaching, and other crimes. But Mr. Bartee has stayed at his desk. His office is so short of money he can't even buy gasoline for his government vehicle."We have approval to investigate felonies, nothing else," explains Bartee, a senior resident agent who has been with the agency for 28 years, in a telephone interview. Bartee is one of dozens of agents in the Atlanta region of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) who have been tied to their desks. The funding crisis in the Atlanta region that encompasses 10 states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands is part of a persistent problem that besets law-enforcement officers of the FWS across the country. FWS officials estimate that each of the 197 field agents requires $105,000 a year. But this year, only $81,000 was appropriated for each agent. The result has been a severe cutback in field investigations. At the same time, their responsibilities have increased. The agents of the enforcement division back up some of America's most important wildlife laws. Over the past 15 years, the number of species protected by the Endangered Species Act has nearly doubled: Federal law now protects 1,134 rare species. But the number of agents has declined by 11 percent.
Manatees endangered In Florida, they've had to ignore the problems of the manatee - despite the sea cow's dwindling population. In Nevada, toxic ponds operated by the gold-mining industry have killed countless migratory birds. The two agents that cover the state haven't been able to properly address the problem due to lack of manpower. Since 1977, the FWS has increased the size of its staff by 78 percent. If the law-enforcement staff had grown at the same rate as the rest of the FWS, there would now be 392 agents working in the law-enforcement division. Instead, there are 197, of which only about 150 are actual field agents. In addition to the lack of money, each agent must patrol huge territories. Special agent Rob Lee, stationed in Lubbock, Texas, patrols an area of 60,000 square miles - a space the size of Illinois. Terry Grosz, assistant regional director for law enforcement in the Denver region, says that the law-enforcement branch in the region has been underfunded for the past 20 years. "For one-third of the US, I've got 19 men. You figure out how well we are going to cover it." The General Accounting Office recently completed a report on the enforcement of federal wildlife laws. In a May 29 letter to Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan, Assistant Comptroller General J. Dexter Peach summarized the GAO report, saying, "Staffing and funding shortfalls have caused FWS regions to selectively enforce wildlife legislation." The GAO report says, "State law enforcement directors in 10 Northeastern states have advised FWS that they believe the agency has 'turned its back' on investigations of major violations involving the interstate transportation of illegally taken wildlife and plants." The report also says that the FWS needs 16 additional agents immediately.
Ruffled feathers Some agents see behind the budgetary problems a lack of political support due to the prosecution of several wealthy and politically powerful big-game hunters. In April 1988, Texas oilman Clayton Williams was detained at the San Francisco airport by FWS special agents who questioned Mr. Williams about the carcass of a rare Tibetan sheep that he was bringing into the country. Williams, a Republican candidate in the 1990 gubernatorial race in Texas, protested the investigation. This is one of several instances in which the division of law enforcement has collided with the interests of big-game hunters. One agent, who requested anonymity, expressed a common sentiment: "Our plight is a conscious and deliberate effort by the highest levels of management of the Fish and Wildlife Service." Although the FWS special agents continue to be effective (they get convictions in more than 90 percent of their cases), the decline in budgetary and political support for the law-enforcement division has begun causing a severe morale problem within the division. Monty Halcomb, assistant regional director for law enforcement in the Atlanta office, says, "Agent morale is as bad as I've seen it." For Bartee, the frustration is growing. "It's horrible. It's like having thoroughbred racehorses that you never let out of the stall."