Dede Manera had long set her sights set on a career with the Drug Enforcement Administration. After putting herself through college to earn a degree in criminal justice, she landed an interview and a job offer.
But fate intervened.
“There was a hiring freeze,” Manera explained.
Unable to bring her on, the DEA agent who interviewed her called to give her a tip.
“He told me, ‘Try to get your foot in the door with another federal agency, and then we can transfer you over.’”
She took half of his advice.
“Thirty years later, here I am,” said Manera, who is now a resident agent in charge of the Special Investigations Unit for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE). “I’m so happy I ended up here. I wouldn’t change my career for anything.”
It was a fortunate twist of fate for the Service, too. Manera has played a pivotal role in numerous consequential cases, including Operation Crash, one of the most successful criminal investigations in the history of the Office of Law Enforcement. She was responsible for planning and executing criminal investigative activities within the “super case” targeting the trade in rhino and ivory horn, and led the team of criminal investigators who helped carry out 42 separate investigations as part of the effort.
In recognition of the significant contributions she has made during her unexpected career in wildlife law enforcement, Manera has now earned one of the highest honors in the profession. She is the 2022 recipient of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Guy Bradley Award, a lifetime achievement award given to one state and one federal officer each year whose dedication to protecting natural resources has advanced the cause of wildlife conservation.
Manera is the first woman to receive the federal award since it was established in 1988. She’s determined not to be the last.
“It’s an honor to be the 2022 Guy Bradley awardee and to be the first female federal agent to receive it,” she said. “I hope I can be an inspiration not just to other female agents, but to young women who haven’t yet picked a career.”
For Manera, reaching and inspiring the next generation is essential for the agency’s long-term success.
“I think we are doing better, but there are so many young people who have no knowledge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or of what the Office of Law Enforcement does.”
She knows because she was one of them.
When the DEA agent advised Manera to get her foot in the door at another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t her backup plan. It wasn’t even on her radar.
After completing a federal civil service exam, she was prompted to pick from a list of different federal agencies that would receive her test scores. “I think you had four choices, and I was down to my last one, and I remember trying to decide between the Railroad Retirement Board and Fish and Game Enforcement,” she said. “My brothers and I loved spending time outside as kids, and I would sometime go fishing with them, so I picked fish and game.”
When a package came with a return address for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she assumed it was for one of her brothers.
It was a letter inviting her to come to Newark, New Jersey, for an interview, which didn’t go well. Or so she thought.
“The questions all related to duck identification and operating boats,” she said. “I remember driving down the New Jersey Turnpike afterwards and thinking, ‘I’m definitely not getting that job.’”
But she did. Two months later, she drove from New Jersey to Georgia to report to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. She was the only woman in her class of 10 special agents.
The first part of the training focused on criminal investigation, echoing much of what she had just learned in college. The second part was all new, a crash course in wildlife law and identification.
“I was facing a steep learning curve,” she said. “In the back of my mind, I still thought I would move on. I didn’t think it was the right job for me.”
Once she was in the field, assigned to the Newark office and conducting waterfowl-enforcement work, Manera’s doubts melted away.
“You had to get up really early, often in cold weather, but when the sun comes up over the water while you’re out in a jon boat, it’s an amazing feeling.”
She tapped into a latent passion for protecting wildlife that has motivated her ever since.
“The more I learned about the extent of what was happening in terms of wildlife crime, and what I could do to address it, the more I cared,” Manera said. “Now this job has become a lifelong love.”
It has also evolved dramatically since she started in the 1990s, as the focus of the agency has shifted from primarily enforcing game laws to combatting wildlife trafficking on a global scale.
“It’s good and it’s bad because there are more resources to support our work” — today the Office of Law Enforcement has an intelligence unit and a foreign attaché program — “but the wildlife trafficking situation has also gotten worse.”
Manera explained that the trafficking networks are trading in more than just wildlife. “They are true criminal networks that opportunistically — whatever makes them money is what they are dealing in,” she said.
Investigations like Operation Crash have helped undermine those networks. To date, the case has resulted in the conviction of more than 40 individuals, 516 months in prison time, $2.1 million in fines, $5.7 million in restitution, and the extradition of five individuals to the United States.
Importantly, it also led to greater protections for wildlife. “When you work cases that result in more than just someone going to jail or being fined, when it affects the resource in a larger arena, those are the cases that are satisfying,” she said.
But she mentioned that the small cases are just as important, like an investigation she led into an individual landowner in New Jersey who damaged known bog turtle habitat on his property, killing federally protected turtles by destroying their food source. The subject was indicted by a federal grand jury and pleaded guilty for violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Whether big or small, every case takes a village. “So many partners play a role in the work we do,” Manera said. “Without them, we couldn’t succeed.”
Rising to the Challenge
Manera has been driven to excel by the passion she discovered for protecting wildlife but also by her determination not to be seen as less capable because she’s a woman.
“When I began my career in 1992, I was one of only six female special agents for the Service in the country, and I was determined to prove that I could I do the job just as well as any man,” she said. “I always felt respected and included by my male counterparts from the first day I started, but I was well aware that this was a field where women were not the norm.”
That awareness sometimes pushed her outside of her comfort zone. “If I was scared about doing something, I knew I couldn’t say I was scared, or someone might think it was because I’m a woman,” Manera said.
But she did have one clear boundary. “My kids take priority over everything.”
She remembered a time when a supervisor pushed back after she requested to take a day off for her daughter’s school trip.
“He said, ‘She won’t even remember that you were there,’” Manera recalled. “I went on the trip.”
Now, she’s glad to see the norms shifting to be more supportive and inclusive. “By the time my daughter was 10, male special agents in my office were starting to have kids, too, and they were taking parental leave,” she said. “It was so awesome to see them taking that time.”
Small but Mighty
Whether it’s helping to promote an evolution in workplace culture, or advancing new ideas for how to do the work, Manera said it’s possible to be a change agent in the Office of Law Enforcement.
In the past year, she has stepped up to help strengthen diversity and inclusion by volunteering for OLE’s National Outreach Working (NOW) Team, which focuses on recruiting candidates from groups that are underrepresented in conservation law enforcement, including women.
“This agency is so small, and the opportunities are so diverse, you really can make a difference,” she said.
From day one, the people and the work have motivated her to persevere in doing so.
“My coworkers and the experiences I’ve had here have been incredible,” Manera said. “If I had the choice, I would do the same thing all over again.”