director Blog: Defending the Defenseless: Plants and Animals

Defending the Defenseless: Plants and Animals

Wildlife agentOur law enforcement officers are dedicated to protecting our natural heritage. Credit: USFWS

Plants and animals have countless and often ingenious ways to deter predators. Monarch butterflies are toxic; turtles have shells; armadillos curl into a ball; cacti have sharp spines. But these defenses aren’t enough to stave off the ultimate predator:  people.

The human intellect and the technology it commands have been able to overcome almost every defense plants and animals can deploy. Which means that the only defense left to our native plants and animals is humanity itself.

For more than a century, dedicated men and women have been willing to put their lives on the line to protect and defend our natural heritage. All of us in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and across the conservation community contribute to this goal in vital ways. But among us, a few assume the responsibility and risk of putting on a badge and a gun to deter and confront the perpetrators of wildlife crime.

As we celebrate National Police Week (May 12-18), I hope we all will take time to reflect on those who dedicate their careers to conservation law enforcement, especially the officers who died to protect our safety.

I’ve been thinking of U.S. Game Warden Edgar Lindgren, the first U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer to lose his life in the line of duty. Officer Lindgren was gunned down near Council Bluffs, Iowa, in August 1922, three weeks after taking the game warden position.  He had just approached three men and asked to see their hunting licenses. They had shot a bittern out of season.

It’s hard to avoid thinking of the senselessness of his death, and the mindless cruelty of those who took his life. To commit murder because you’ve poached a bittern out of season seems incomprehensible to any thinking and feeling human being.

Some might reasonably ask whether avenging the death of a single bird is worth the price of a human life.

But it’s important to remember that Officer Lindgren didn’t sacrifice his life for a single bittern. He, and all those who have died – as well as the countless others who’ve given long days and nights in the dangerous work of patrolling a refuge or staking out a wildlife trafficking ring – have taken a stand for a much larger principle.

fallen Comrades plaqueThe Fallen Comrades Plaque. Credit: USFWS

They risk their lives not solely or even principally because of a single animal, or even the hundreds of animals killed by larger poaching and trafficking rings. Conservation law enforcement rests on the understanding that we must set and abide by limits on our consumption. These limits are necessary not only to sustain wildlife, plants and ecosystems – but humanity itself for future generations.

Without the strong enforcement of conservation laws, we would not have clean air, clean water and healthy places to live. Our food supply and sources of shelter, jobs and recreation would be threatened. Conservation law enforcement benefits everyone.

Officer Lindgren, sadly, is not the only Service member on the honor roll of those who have died in the line of duty. The seven others are:

  • Special Agent Thomas Cloherty, who died on a training run in 2005 in Acadia National Park, Maine;
  • Refuge Manager/Officer Richard Guadagno, a passenger on Flight 93 who is thought to be among those who fought back against their hijackers on September 11, 2001, causing the plane to crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania;
  • Special Agent Douglas Morris, whose Service vehicle was struck by a train at an unprotected crossing in Harris County, Texas, while he was returning from a patrol during goose hunting season in January 1990;
  • Special Agent Mary Monaghan, struck by a backhoe in January 1989 as she walked past a construction site near her office in the Main Interior Building in Washington, DC;
  • Refuge Officers Andrew Crews and Joseph Martin, shot and killed when they went to investigate a report of a person wanted for arson in Waycross, Georgia in June 1945; and
  • U.S. Game Agent Edward Whitehead, shot and killed in December, 1934 by a man he had arrested after inspecting the man's game bag of ducks. As the two returned to Savannah, Georgia, the suspect shot him.

Regardless of the circumstances of their death, each of these men and women picked up that badge and gun every day, knowing that there was the possibility that they might not make it home that night. Their courage and self-sacrifice is humbling.

Please join me in observing a moment of silence in their memory. And take a moment to thank your fellow law enforcement special agents and refuge officers for their service to wildlife and people.

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Last updated: August 31, 2011