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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Wildlife Special Agents Protect Native American Culture

  woman looks at hands, one holds pliers, one a small object

Every November, our country celebrates Native American Heritage Month providing an opportunity to learn about the vast history of Native Americans and vital contributions they have made to our country.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  has a mandated obligation to ensure that the federal Indian trust responsibility is fulfilled, and every program of the Service has a role. (At left: Liz Wallace, a jeweler and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, cuts silver wire in the process of making a piece of jewelry. Photo courtesy of Liz Wallace)

The Service’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) supports Native Americans and Alaska Natives in numerous ways such as training tribal conservation law enforcement officers, assisting with criminal investigations, providing eagle feathers and parts for use in religious ceremonies, supporting subsistence hunting, and enforcing federal laws that protect Native American culture such as the Marine Mammal+ Protection Act, Archeological Resources Protection Act, and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA).

The IACA is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in marketing of American Indian or Alaska Native art and craft products within the United States. To enforce the IACA, the OLE works closely with Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), led by Director Meridith Stanton, an enrolled member of the Delaware Nation and a Choctaw Nation descendant.

“In the initial period following the enactment of the IACA, the board worked with multiple law enforcement agencies on stopping the sale of counterfeit Native American art and craftwork, with mixed results,” Stanton says. So in in 2012, the Service and the IACB signed a Memorandum of Agreement to conduct IACA criminal investigations. 

silver ring with black writng enath and next to ruler   A counterfeit ring has the fake initials of the artist and “sterling” stamped on the back. Since it does not display the country of origin, it is implied the piece was crafted in the United States. Photo by USFWS

Since then, the OLE has assigned special agents to disrupt and dismantle this criminal activity and the OLE’s successes are significant. Stanton says she wanted the OLE  “because not only are their investigative abilities exceptional, they have jurisdiction throughout all of the U.S. states and territories and has an international reach.”  Numerous defendants have been investigated, indicted and sentenced for their crimes, and their actions were documented in states such as Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas; and in countries such as China, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand. 

Office of Law Enforcement
To learn more about OLE’s work, please visit its website and if you believe you have knowledge about a wildlife crime, you may report it via the Service’s tip line by either calling 1- 844-FWS-TIPS (397-8477) or email fws_tips@fws.gov.

Most of these defendants ran similar multinational criminal schemes in the Southwest United States that involved fake Native American art mass produced in the Philippines. These fakes were then smuggled into the United States and sold as authentic Indian jewelry to unaware consumers at numerous retailers throughout the United States. 

These crimes were not simple to investigate because they were multifaceted and involved other serious crimes such as identity theft, mail fraud, wire fraud, smuggling, conspiracy and money laundering.  Throughout these investigations, OLE agents discovered that counterfeit Indian art criminal networks operated a complex web of middlemen, across the nation, to distribute and market fraudulent Indian artwork.  In addition, these defendants used their illegal sales to undercut reputable competitors often taking over their businesses.  The millions of dollars generated by these counterfeit Indian art networks supported organized crime in the United States and were also funneled to overseas criminal operations.

 2 silver pieces with etching, one in bag,. with rulers above, below, on left  Authentic Native American made canteen on the left compared to its counterfeit on the right. Photo by USFWS

The marketing of fraudulent Indian arts and crafts adversely affects Indian artists, businesses, tribes and economies.  Many Native Americans and Alaska Natives depend on their artwork as their source of income.  Without the oversight of the IACB and the OLE’s investigative efforts, the marketplace would be flooded with cheap counterfeit items and there would be little or no market for Indians to sell their authentic hand-made products. Ultimately, this would contribute to a decline of Indian tradition, culture and authentic art. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is authorized to pay rewards for information or assistance that leads to an arrest, a criminal conviction, civil penalty assessment, or forfeiture of seized property. Payment of rewards is the discretion of the Service and is linked to specific federal wildlife laws. The amount of any reward we may pay is commensurate with the information or assistance received.


Liz Wallace is a Santa Fe, New Mexico, based jeweler and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. Her jewelry styles are classic Navajo and Art Nouveau. While the Navajo jewelry style is rooted in millennia-old Athabascan traditions, the silver and turquoise associated with it today involves metallurgy techniques learned from Hispanic blacksmiths in the villages of northwestern New Mexico in the mid-19th century.

“Starting in the 1800s, jewelry making became important economically for Navajo men. Navajo weavings made by our women were also coveted items early on in American history,”  Wallace says. “Our jewelers created this heavy silver jewelry style that makes the Navajo tradition unique. It was very different from the delicate Victorian jewelry that was mainstream during that time period.”  She continues, “Years ago I had been seeing stores full of cheap knockoffs, and I saw the IACA as ineffective, and symbolic at best. But I’ve since changed my tune, especially after learning how hard Service investigators work and how dedicated they are.  We hope that these convictions and prison sentences will make a big difference.”

Phil Land, the Service’s Special Agent in Charge stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the agent responsible for OLE’s investigative work throughout most the Southwest United States, knows the importance of authentic work spreads beyond the tribes. “New Mexico’s economy relies heavily on Native American art and culture,” he says, “The OLE is committed to investigating violations of the IACA to protect the Native American cultural heritage. If a person visiting New Mexico goes into a store to buy Native American made jewelry, they should have the confidence that they are getting authentic work and vendors who misrepresent Native American made jewelry will be held accountable.”  

While investigating counterfeiters is an effective deterrent, the consumer should also take steps to ensure their purchase is legitimate by asking about the history and authenticity of the piece.

“The best thing for people to do is their homework and to think of that authentic Native American artwork as an investment,” Wallace says. “Buy from a reputable vendor or, even better, directly from the artists. Each piece has a history, it has traditions and heritage that go with it, and when you buy an authentic piece, you’re honoring that culture and heritage.”

To assist the consumer, the IACB’s website posts a Source Directory of federally recognized Indian artists and arts businesses, and you can also report a suspected IACA crime here



By Al Barrus, External Affairs, Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas Gulf and Lower Colorado Basin Regions, and Amy Jonach, Office of Law Enforcement, Headquarters

'Zip-tie,' Family Get Helping Hand

Mojave desert tortoises occur in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts north and west of the Colorado River in southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, southeastern California and northwestern Arizona. They live on a variety of terrain from sandy flats to rocky foothills but face numerous obstacles when seeking suitable habitat in the wild. Roadways are one of the greatest dangers, accounting for the deaths of more than 200 tortoises a year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works closely with the U.S. Marine Corps and other organizations to treat injured tortoises. Desert Tortoise Rescue tells the recovery story of one particular tortoise struck by a vehicle and the team that saved it. It highlights the work of Palm Springs Fish and Wildlife Office biologist Scott Hoffman, who partnered with the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms’ egg incubation and hatchlings headstart facility, and Turtle Island’s conservation, breeding and research center in Austria. The video also provides ways to help protect the threatened species.

Veterans Conserve the Nature of America

  collage of 7 veterans photos

We, the nation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, owe a huge debt to military veterans. They defend our country and its interests, willing to put their lives on the line. Then, some choose to put their diverse talents to work for the Fish and Wildlife Service. And what an array of talents it is! We like to point out that the Service is much more than biologists. Take a look at this photo gallery of a few of our veterans. It proves the point. You will find biologists, scientists and refuge managers but also public affairs officers, tractor operators and administrators. And more! Thank you, veterans, for your sacrifices and for lending a hand to conserve the nature of America.

Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, FWS Continue Efforts to Engage Diverse Urban Youth

   3 women on a dock, middle one with fishing rodZeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. members Kelsey Burks, Sierra Snyder and Cynthia Ofosu. Photo by USFWS

By Aurelia Skipwith, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana, and cherished the summers I spent in rural Mississippi where you could always find me outdoors. Even now, some of my happiest moments are moments I’m outside – hunting, fishing, watching wildlife, running. One of my top priorities as Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to ensure that people know that public lands belong to the American people and to encourage everyone to access nature, even if they live in urban areas.

The Service manages a network of public lands and facilities including 568 National Wildlife Refuges, 70 National Fish Hatcheries, 38 wetland management districts, many of which are accessible to the public. These are public lands and waters we manage for the benefit of the American people. These are outdoor places where you can hunt, fish, hike, bike, camp, photograph wildlife and more. More than 100 National Wildlife Refuges are within an hour's drive of major metropolitan areas.

Today, more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, and for the Service to continue its mission of stewardship of our nation’s wildlife and habitat, we must increase our efforts work collaboratively in urban areas. That’s why I am so pleased that we are renewing our partnership with Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated. With the Sorority, we work to engage all youth in outdoor recreation, environmental education and careers in conservation.


Make Your Home a Safe, Healthy Home for Wildlife

Coreopsis close-upCoreopsis can attract butterflies and other native insects. Photo by Santos Rubio

Many native wildlife species are in trouble. Factors such as development, invasive species and climate change all play a part in changing the landscape these animals once called home. Small actions can lead to BIG change. No matter where you live, everyone can do something to help make their home a safe and healthy home for native wildlife.


Tribes Bless Eagle Burial Site

  2 men, one wearing headdress, in front of blue  sky stand next to plastic box of ashes  Between two trees on a section of restored prairie on Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado is a final resting place for eagle remains from the National Eagle Repository.

Last fall, Service staff and representatives from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, Oglala Lakota and Southern Ute participated in a blessing ceremony of the eagle burial site on the refuge. (At left: Spiritual and cultural leadersrepresenting the Oglala Lakota andsouthern Ute tribes coordinate honoring the cremated eagle remains.)

Originally, eagle bones and ash that remained after cremation went through the mainstream waste collection. But in 2017, the Service invited federally recognized tribes to schedule a visit to the Service’s National Eagle Repository.

One tribe requested the Service provide a more respectful and culturally appropriate alternative to dispose of remains of the eagles, a bird that tribes refer to as “brother eagle.”


Hunting During the Pandemic: Respite for Families is Boon for Conservation

   forestDeep Fork National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oklahoma is a dense bottomland hardwood forest that can flood during heavy rain events. Visitors enjoy the boardwalk that traverses flooded parts of the refuge during the spring rain events. Year-round fishing is available at the refuge, and there are also seasonal draw hunts on there for small game, turkey, waterfowl and deer. Photo by USFWS

While the toll on countless families has been catastrophic during the pandemic, the people of this nation are doing their part to slow the spread by social distancing. It’s been a time of adjustment, to say the least, as many typical family activities are under restrictions in the interest of minimizing the spread.

More and more families are enjoying traditional outdoor activities that come with built-in social distancing measures. Nationwide spikes in hunting and fishing license sales for 2020 are unprecedented. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation reports an increase of around 50 percent in resident fishing license purchases. The use of parks has more than doubled in many cities, driving urban residents to seek out less crowded places to recreate, and this means a win for wildland conservation.


Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month by Working Toward a More Diverse Future

   3 women around a National Wildlife Refuge System signLeft to right: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith with HAF interns Ariel Martinez and Jailene Hidalgo. Photo by HAF

“Wow, how did I end up here?”

That’s the question Jailene Hidalgo, a graduate of Cornell University’s Environmental & Sustainability Sciences program, regularly asked herself this year during her fellowship for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While at headquarters, Jailene has played an active role in promoting the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program.

“Having a role in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is an honor I could have only dreamed of. Being here to support such a meaningful community-based program that can have long-lasting effects on urban youth and the future of wildlife conservation makes the opportunity all the more special,” Jailene says.


Why Historically Black College and Universities and HBCU Week are Important to Conservation!

By Aurelia Skipwith, USFWS Director 

Last week was Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) Week, which is sponsored by the White House and the Department of Education under the White House Initiative on HBCUs. The Initiative’s mission is to, “…work with agencies, private-sector employers, educational associations, philanthropic organizations, and other partners to increase the capacity and competitiveness of HBCUs to provide the highest-quality education to an increasing number of students.” This mission is accomplished through three primary focus areas, including programs, projects and policies.

  HBCU Week logo. Virtual National HBCU Week and Conference 2020: The Perfect Decade to Accelerate HBCU Competitiveness

In February 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13779 renewing the White House Initiative on HBCUs. Among other things, the Executive Order promotes increased actions by federal agencies to engage with HBCUs to increase their capacity and competitiveness, establishes a federal Interagency Working Group, and a Board of Advisors on HBCUs to advise the President on the Initiative and efforts to strengthen the educational capacity of HBCUs  

HBCUs were established through Congress under the Morrill Act and the second Morrill Act of 1890. These institutions were established after American Civil War, as land grant institutions to provide educational opportunities to blacks, who were excluded from higher educational systems. Today, there are 107 HBCUs in the United States that have a deep and rich history. Many great biologists and scientists throughout American history attended or taught at these schools. Great scientists such as Ernest Everett Just, George Washington Carver and Patricia Bath all made significant scientific contributions that continue to benefit the economic, physical and social health of the American people. Since 1837, HBCUs have shaped people who go on to shape American history and society, including science and conservation.

We have HBCUs to thank for retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leaders Dr. Mamie Parker, the Service’s first black Regional Director, and Hannibal Bolton, the former Assistant Director for Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration.

I am a proud graduate of Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. which was established in 1867.

The last few weeks, I have been in the field and I am proud of the diversity of people, thought, talent and skill that enables the Service to meet its mission. That is I am very pleased that we participated in this year’s HBCU Week, which took place virtually from September 20 through the 26, to give us an opportunity to tell HBCU leaders and students about the Service and our rich legacy as the oldest and greatest conservation agency.  

As the Service continues to build relationships with all universities, equitably, HBCU Week is a forum for Service staff to participate and learn more about research, science programs, community engagement, technical assistance opportunities and more that are occurring at HBCUs.

In recent years, the Service has sought to increase efforts to partner with HBCUs to continue cultivating these invaluable relationships and share an important dialogue about diversity, equity and inclusion in conservation. In accordance with Executive Order 13779 and our own HBCU Program policy, we also evaluate how to improve these partnerships over time and leverage the strengths of HBCUs to help us achieve our conservation mission for the American people.

So, HBCU Week is not only about HBCUs and the exceptional students they develop. It is also about how federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, can introduce ourselves and partner with HBCUs. Now that’s important!

Aurelia Skipwith is the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; she was first nominated to the position by President Trump in 2018 and is the first African American to hold that position.

One African American Family’s Story about Their Love of the Outdoors and Hunting

 2 photos. Left: man in black coat, knit cap that says Maryland Hunter Education Instructor. Right: Young Man stands in water holding harvested goose Gary Monroe (left) and son Javier. All photos courtesy the Monroes

Waterfowl hunting is an incredibly important part of our conservation history and an essential part of the work we do in the U.S. Fish and  Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Program. We manage the Federal Duck Stamp Program, one of the most successful conservation programs ever created. Since 1934, this conservation revenue stamp, required for every waterfowl hunter, has raised more than $1 billion (yes that is billion with a “b”) in sales that has been used to conserve more than 6 million acres of wetlands. We also collect data through monitoring programs to set hunting limits for waterfowl hunters every year. As the federal leader managing waterfowl populations across the country, we work to ensure that ducks and geese can sustain healthy populations and still afford invaluable experiences to Americans who enjoy hunting.

There are an estimated 11.5 million Americans who hunt in the United States and fewer than 2.3 million waterfowl hunters. It’s estimated that 11.1 percent of the white population hunts, but fewer than 2 percent of hunters are African American, Asian or Hispanic. We recently spoke to an African American father and son who share a love of the outdoors and recreational hunting. Gary is an avid outdoorsman and son Javier shares that connection with his dad. We asked them a series of questions to learn about their connection to the outdoors and celebrate their stories.

1) How did you first get into hunting? Who introduced you into hunting?

Gary: I was introduced to hunting by a co-worker of mine while in college, Danny. His family was originally from West Virginia, and he inherited 400 acres of family land from his grandparents. He talked about hunting all the time and invited me to his property. I wasn’t so interested in hunting at that time, but I was an avid outdoorsman and fisherman growing up. This attraction was instilled within me from my time growing up as a former Cub Scout and Webelo (We Be Loyal Scouts). This connection, and introduction to hunting, forged a very strong friendship for us, so much so that Danny is now the godfather to my son. We are still close friends to this day.

Javier: From as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the outdoors and nature — something about self-sustaining natural life just fascinated me and I was hooked. I first got into hunting at a young age with my father. I was 12 years old on my first hunt, and I couldn’t stop asking my dad when we would go again.

2) What do you love most about hunting?

 2 photos. Left: man in orange hunter safety best, camo balaclava. Right: Young Man stands in water holding harvested geeseGary Monroe (left) is ready for the hunt. Javier with geese.

Gary: Hunting allows me the opportunity to relax from everyday stress. I enjoy the scenery — watching wildlife undisturbed, plants and the natural patterns of nature. For me it’s not the harvest that is most important, but the calm and peace that I have. It’s almost like meditation, in my solitary moments, sitting still and quiet while in the woods.

Javier: I think what I love most about hunting is just to see the animals in relationship to each other, and their ecosystem. It beats watching Animal Planet by 10! You see the coolest things in the woods, and the more time you spend out there, the more Mother Nature shows you how awesome she is.

3) Do you know a lot of African Americans who like to hunt?

Gary: I’ve met quite a few over the years, and I’ve personally introduced even more to hunting. It’s a bond, something like a fraternity of brothers. When I became a Maryland state hunter and gun safety instructor, I was able to reach a few other African Americans with interests in hunting and conservation in general. I’ve also been a member of the Izaak Walton League of America for seven years in Maryland, where I get together with other nature lovers.

Javier: Outside of my family, I have met some good friends who also hunt and share a love for the outdoors the same as me. I still wouldn’t say it is a lot, but I do know quite a few.

4) According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, less than 2 percent of African Americans in the U.S. participate in hunting, whereas an estimate 11 percent of whites hunt. Why do you think that is?

Gary: I think that it’s mostly because of exposure. Most Black Americans reside within or near inner city limits: urban populated areas. At least that’s my perspective from where I live now and grew up. Most of their activities center around neighborhood clubs, centers or playgrounds, so club sports like basketball, football, baseball and soccer are where they mostly concentrate their attention. You see limited wildlife growing up in the city, and the wildlife you do see, most don’t associate with consumption. Most city dwellers have a healthy fear of wild animals and a lack of respect for their habitat at the same time.

  young man in boat holding fish

Javier: Well, when you look at where the highest concentrated areas for African Americans, you’ll find that a lot of us are from inner cities where hunting and fishing isn’t looked at as a common activity. I think the most common introduction to hunting or fishing is through a relative or a parent. When you have generations of family coming from places like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, as a product of your environment in urban areas, I believe that odds are low of a person getting into these activities. However, I do not believe they are incapable of falling in love with it the same way I did. I know this for a fact to be true because whenever I take a friend that I met in college or high school out fishing or hunting, nine times out of 10 they are instantly hooked. It reminds me of when my dad first took me fishing and hunting; after that first time, I begged him to take me back out every chance I got. My friends do the same, regardless of where they’re from.

5) What can we at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do to help change that?

Gary: USFWS should produce more campaigns focused toward inner city children and teens. USFWS could also use media which depicts images of African Americans and show them that blacks are involved in hunting and fishing. Sponsor programs that will take them out on their first hunt. Present opportunities to introduce them to learning about land, plants and water, and the importance of sustainability and conservation and how it effects their own environments. You can also campaign about how healthier and more cost effective it is to harvest your own foods. Support programs that also teach wilderness survival and foraging from the land. Above all else, gun safety and proper handling. Create more shooting sports programs targeted toward Black Americans with long guns as the focus. Establish USFWS nature tours on federal properties that would simulate a hunt, where they can see wildlife and learn what to do and not to do, with the protection of an experienced guide.

Javier: First and foremost, I appreciate that you are at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and are actually asking me what I think. Thanks so much! Second, I’ve heard about the programs that you guys have started offering for inner-city kids to get outdoors like the one you did for the kids in Philadelphia at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge [at Tinicum]. I’ve never been to that particular refuge, but I have been to Patuxent Research Refuge to go fishing, and I think that’s a great idea to reach out to them — the younger the better. Aside from my dad, I was blessed to be able to attend a great summer day camp program where the director loved to take the children fishing. We picked and ate natural organic raspberries and blackberries and endless field trips like visits to pumpkins patches and crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay. Both my dad and my summer camp director were great influences for me and have a lot to do with my appreciation for nature and the outdoors to this day. I am a believer and feel that I serve as testimony to starting kids at a young age can make all the difference.

6) What advice do you have for African Americans today to explore hunting as a recreational activity?

Gary: I would advise anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to explore nature and wildlife to first start by taking a free hunter safety course. Ask lots of questions about any and everything involving the sport. Go out to supporting regional and federal parks and learn to scout and find wildlife signs. Bring a friend, family members or friends with you when you go.

Javier: The best advice I can give, is to just go out and try it! And tell a friend!

We hope that as you read Gary’s and Javier’s words, that by them sharing their story, it can encourage others to share theirs. We are continuing to reach out, listen, learn and take action. Help us tell the stories in an effort to celebrate the diversity of people who already love the outdoors, in order to inspire more people of all backgrounds to connect with the outdoors. From hunting to hiking to camping to birding, it’s time we ensure that all people feel welcome enjoying outdoor activities.

By Valerie Fellows/USFWS

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