Wildlife Protection:

Enforcement of Federal Laws Could Be Strengthened

RCED-91-44: Published: Apr 26, 1991. Publicly Released: May 28, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed whether: (1) federal statutes and international treaties provided sufficient authority to protect wildlife, particularly migratory waterfowl; and (2) the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) adequately enforced those statutes and treaties.

GAO found that: (1) with the exception of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act, the 11 federal statutes and 5 international treaties provided sufficient enforcement authority for FWS; (2) the lack of warrantless search and seizure authority in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act hampered agents' efforts to investigate suspected violations; (3) the issue of whether hybrid species were protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 presented enforcement problems, since the only alternative to conclusively prove an animal's species was to destroy and examine it; (4) although new and amended legislation substantially increased FWS responsibilities for protecting species, the number of FWS special agents decreased by 9 percent; (5) due to insufficient funds, some special agents were deskbound and unable to perform their basic responsibilities for months at a time; (6) staffing and funding shortfalls resulted in the selective enforcement of wildlife protection legislation; (7) FWS lacked adequate information regarding the extent of suspected crimes it was unable to investigate and the effectiveness of its law enforcement methods; and (8) joint FWS-state investigations of large-scale illegal commercial operations and massive illegal harvesting of waterfowl worked well, but reductions in FWS staffing and operating funds, coupled with its focus on large-scale operations, rendered FWS unable to respond to many state requests for assistance.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider amending the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to provide warrantless search and seizure authority. As FWS suggests, Congress may wish to use language similar to that in the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No serious consideration has been given to amending the Migratory Bird Treaty Act since the issuance of the report in April 1991, and there are no plans to do so in the future. Congress has had ample opportunity to make any revisions to the act.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To provide current and reliable information on the extent of crimes against wildlife, thus enabling FWS to better justify its funding needs and ensure that FWS law enforcement agents are able to perform their basic responsibilities, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to require FWS law enforcement management and agents to record: (1) all instances of suspected violations coming to their attention, including those that may not be investigated; (2) FWS handling of the suspected violations; and (3) the outcome of the investigations.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FWS collected information on all reported violations for 1 year, but discontinued this practice, claiming it did not produce the results expected. FWS did, however, redesign and install its investigative subsystem. While this system would not contain information on all reported violations, it was expected to provide more current data on investigations conducted and the outcome of those investigations. However, FWS staff has had difficulty connecting to and transmitting data using the new subsystem. FWS is preparing to sign a contract to convert its DOS-based system to a Windows environment, which it believes will solve the problems the staff has experienced. No completion date for the project is available.

    Recommendation: FWS should use those records to: (1) periodically assess the extent of the suspected crimes against wildlife; (2) provide realistic estimates of staff and funds needed to adequately address the problem, and (3) include the estimates in annual budget requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FWS' redesigned computer system, scheduled to be online by November 30, 1995, was expected to generate more current and reliable information about investigations conducted of crimes against wildlife and the staffing and resources needed by the Division of Law Enforcement. However, the system will not contain information on all reported violations. Although the redesigned system has been installed, FWS staff have experienced problems connecting to and transmitting data using the redesigned system. FWS officials plan to have the current DOS-based system converted to a Windows environment, which they believe will solve the problems experienced. Plans and a contact for the project are almost finalized, but a completion date for the project is not yet available.

    Recommendation: To provide current and reliable information on joint federal-state efforts to protect wildlife and to better justify the resources needed to continue the reciprocal relationship with the states, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to document: (1) all state requests for assistance in investigating suspected violations of wildlife protection laws; (2) FWS responses to the requests; and (3) the outcome of any investigations.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FWS collected information on all reported violations for 1 year, but discontinued this practice, claiming it did not produce the results expected. FWS did, however, redesign and install its investigative subsystem. While this system would not contain information on all reported violations, it was expected to provide more current data on investigations conducted and the outcome of those investigations. However, the FWS staff has had difficulty connecting to and transmitting data using the new subsystem. FWS is preparing to sign a contract to convert its DOS-based system to a Windows environment, which it believes will solve the problems its staff has experienced. No completion date for the project is available.

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