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According to USFWS, the United States is one of the largest markets in the world for wildlife and wildlife products. Everything from exotic fish to alligator-skin boots comes through U.S. ports of entry every year.
Each and every one of those has to comply with current U.S. and international laws designed to:
- Protect endangered species
- Protect humans from dangerous animals
- Prevent the introduction of invasive species that would destroy native habitat
The people responsible for stopping all these threats at the border are the wildlife inspectors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
What Does a Wildlife Inspector Do?
Inspectors are professional import-export control officers. They work closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff to screen shipments coming into the United States for compliance, and they confiscate—or liberate, in cases that involve live animals—anything endangered or otherwise transported improperly.
Inspectors have to be able to quickly and accurately identify thousands of different protected or restricted species, and to know the applicable regulations governing the import or export of those fish or animals.
Enforcing Laws of the Land that Protect Endangered Species
The Lacey Act of 1900 is considered one of the nation’s first wildlife laws, prohibiting interstate trafficking in wildlife in violation of local laws. Inspectors still enforce those provisions, along with laws developed in more recent legislation including:
- Migratory Bird Treaty Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Marine Mammal Protection Act
CITES, the common shorthand abbreviation for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, stands out as one of the major considerations for inspectors. First enacted in 1975, the treaty provides a comprehensive mechanism for signatories to cooperate to prevent illegal wildlife trade and prevent extinction. Although CITES does not replace national laws, it provides a mechanism for each nation to receive assistance from others to protect its own species and habitat.
Wildlife inspectors serve in the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement alongside Wildlife Officers and Special Agents, but unlike those roles, they are not sworn officers. They may write citations but do not make arrests or carry firearms.
On The Job Around The Clock Along The Border
According to a 2012 Popular Mechanic’s article, an astonishing $10-$20 million in illegal wildlife trade goes on in the U.S. each year, making wildlife smuggling third on the list behind illegal narcotics and arms trafficking. Inspectors are on the front line intercepting and confiscating illegal shipments.
International markets never sleep and inspectors work all hours to process incoming and outgoing cargo shipments or to screen passengers arriving from other countries.
Wildlife inspectors are stationed at one of the following 18 designated ports of entry for commercial wildlife shipments:
- Dallas/Fort Worth
- Los Angeles
- New Orleans
- New York
- San Francisco
Some inspectors also staff ports of entry along the Canadian and Mexican borders.
Although they may be called on to inspect any sort of incoming wildlife shipment—whether declared or discovered by spot checks—inspectors primarily deal with commercial shipments.
This means a lot of paperwork is involved. In fact, suspicious paperwork is what throws up a flag for most illicit shipments that end up intercepted. Inspectors do not have time to personally open and check every shipment, so getting a feel for paperwork that doesn’t seem quite right is an important part of the job.
The work can happen at all hours and is typically performed between stuffy offices filled with old computers and piles of forms, and the rough and ready concrete and steel jumble of airport cargo handling facilities or seaports. Inspectors spend a lot of time in dimly lit warehouses fishing around in crates for poisonous snakes, so it’s not a job for the faint-hearted.
Inspectors use specialized tools such as plexiglass viewing tubes to peer into suspicious crates or bags without having to worry about getting a scorpion to the face. They also become adept with snake hooks, alligator hog-ties, and traps and cages. They also use specially trained sniffer dogs to inspect shipments quickly.
Inspectors who hope to qualify as dog-handlers have to go through a special 13-week course at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, Georgia in addition to their regular inspector training.
Inspectors don’t just lay in wait to bust anyone violating the letter of the law, though. The combination of international and national regulations is complex, and no one knows it better than inspectors. Many violations happen not because the violator is up to no good, but simply because they misunderstand the rules. Conducting compliance interviews with shippers is often the first step in any investigation just to clear up confusion on the complex laws around wildlife shipment and importation.
Inspectors also work with shippers to educate them on the appropriate methods of complying with regulations and laws. They can serve as a sounding board when shippers call with questions about legality and process, or they may perform outreach work at trade shows or industry events. Inspectors work with:
- Customs brokers
- International travelers
- Industry trade associations
Every incident they can prevent through education is less work and a safer shipment down the line.
The Focus Remains On Intentional Violators
The real goal for inspectors is to catch the career criminals, the smugglers who profit by the destruction of endangered species or importation of dangerous animals. To that end, they frequently work with the service’s special agents, who conduct long-term investigations and sting operations designed to capture and prosecute such criminals.
In 2013, for example, a routine inspection of a package coming in through Portland turned up part of a Helmeted Hornbill, an endangered bird species from Malaysia. Wildlife inspectors were able to track the package to the local buyer in Oregon. Special Agents confronted and gained the buyer’s cooperation and laid on an intricate sting operation that convinced the Malaysian smugglers to fly to Portland, where they were easily apprehended.
Because of their intimate familiarity with the shipping side and wildlife law, inspectors can be integral parts of such investigations, leveraging their expertise in coordination with Special Agents to bring smugglers to justice.
In March of 2017, inspectors found themselves working not just with FWS and CBP agents, but with agencies from more than 43 different countries as a part of Operation Thunderbird, a coordinated CITES enforcement effort that netted 900 suspects, confiscated 1,300 shipments, and prevented around $5 million in illegal trafficking.
How To Become a USFWS Wildlife Inspector
There are only 140 wildlife inspectors nationwide, so their ranks are thin on the ground. New openings are rare. Although there are few fixed requirements for being hired as a new inspector, the competition is fierce and usually a combination of education and related experience is necessary to snag one of the open positions.
The federal Office of Personnel Management handles hiring. Applications can be filed online at usajobs.gov when positions are open.
Candidates must have a bachelor’s degree or three years of general experience. OPM looks for candidates with a background in criminal justice, zoology, or wildlife taxonomy. Additionally, strong skills in communication and computer literacy are important. An ability to analyze problems and plan and organize effectively is also key.
Experience is a huge factor. Many inspectors have already worked as game wardens or wildlife handlers for years before coming into federal service.
Depending on their education and experience, inspectors may start at General Schedule levels, 5, 7, 9, for a salary between $28,545 and $43,251.
Newly hired inspectors are shipped off immediately to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia, for an eight-week basic training course in their new duties. The course includes instruction on such topics as:
- Species identification
- Wildlife laws
- Animal handling
Wildlife inspector is not always the end of the career ladder, however. Many inspectors enter the job with the goal of ultimately becoming a Special Agent with the service. Although there is no formal promotion path from inspector to agent, the on-the-job experience gained as an inspector is viewed as an invaluable introduction to the types of crimes that agents are often asked to investigate.