National Wildlife Refuge System
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crates of looted artifacts
Crates hold some of the more than 13,000 historic artifacts recovered after the looting of an archeological site at the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois. The actions of Refuge System law enforcement officers were key to the case’s successful prosecution.
Credit: Geoff Donaldson, USFWS

Refuge Law Enforcement Officers Train to Stop Looting

National Wildlife Refuge System law enforcement officers, whose training includes a mandatory course in cultural resource protection, have a new case to draw from in their study: the looting of more than 13,000 historic artifacts from an archeological site at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois. The artifacts included pottery shards, pieces of clay figurines, stone grinding tools, arrowheads, spear heads, axe heads — all small pieces that could fit in the palm of your hand.

Fellow officers are credited with the case’s successful prosecution, a source of pride for the course leaders. The use of hidden surveillance and filming techniques, overseen by Cypress Creek Officer Geoff Donaldson, led to a recent conviction in the case. "The officers did what they had been trained to do," said Charles Louke, law enforcement specialist for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia. "When we get that kind of conviction, it sends a message that we’re here to protect America’s resources."

The federal Archeological Resources Protection Act makes it a felony to disturb, damage or remove historic material from public lands. First offenders can serve up to two years in prison and pay $250,000 in fines.

The Refuge System employs about 400 uniformed refuge law enforcement officers and another 200 or so plain–clothes special agents. To stop looting from public lands, both groups often team up with officers from other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service. Some refuges, such as Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, also deploy area residents as volunteer site stewards to monitor the condition of known sites.

The Refuge System also asks visitors to report suspicious behavior. "If people see someone digging in an area where maybe they shouldn’t be, they should call the refuge and let us know," said Bill Kent, chief of the Branch of Training, Division of Refuge Law Enforcement. Relic hunters and traffickers, he said, are stealing "this country’s history. When people take artifacts and resources away, they’re taking them from you and me."

Unfortunately, even a conviction can't undo the harm done by looting, as the Illinois case shows. The recovered pottery, clay figurines, tools, funerary objects and pieces of human bone, some of which may date back thousands of years, will never yield as much information as they would have if they had been left undisturbed. "Once you take something out of context, it's just an object," explains Rick Kanaski, regional historic preservation officer and archeologist for the Service’s Southeast Region. "The context is what's really important."

For more information: Contact Geoff Donaldson at or 618-889-5901.
For information on the refuge: or 618-634-2231.


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