In 2006 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Law Enforcement began to take a hard look at the illegal black market involving the State’s reptiles and amphibians. Reports of disappearing populations of protected turtles, frogs, salamanders, lizards and snakes, an awareness of the market effect on wildlife through the internet, and the ecological necessity to protect our “indicator species”, were all factors fueling their concern. Armed with new legislation that now protects all of the State’s “herpafauna”, the Division began an aggressive pre-operational phase of research and investigation to determine if there was a commercial threat to wildlife species that tell us the most about the quality of our environment. What they uncovered was alarming. A very lucrative illegal market did exist, fostered by a strong culture of people with a desire to make money from ecologically significant species whose value grows on the black market as population numbers decline. Division investigators identified significant illegal buying and selling of native New York species on the internet, at large organized “herp” shows across the country, and through members of organizations chartered to protect, not exploit, our wildlife.
Armed with a solid basis of fact, the Division assigned two investigators to full-time covert status, with the intention of penetrating the illegal trade in reptiles and amphibians. The ultimate goal was to arrest and prosecute those involved in these illegal activities, and to bring about a renewed public awareness of this sensitive resource. The Division received the full support of DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis and a small number of biologists within the Department, all of whom worked diligently and discreetly to assist the Investigators in their mission. DEC Herpetologist Al Breisch provided countless hours of technical advice, biological instruction, and species identification, while Commissioner Grannis, recognizing the ecological significance of the wildlife involved, provided high level support for the operation.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, the undercover investigators slipped into the herp world and came back time and again with cases of a magnitude that no one had anticipated. They found New York’s timber rattlesnakes and wood turtles being shipped out of state and out of the country to support high-end markets for illegal collectors in places like China and Europe. They found thousands of New York turtles being laundered through a turtle farm in Louisiana, and then shipped to China. They found thousands more being trapped illegally in New York and sold in Maryland to be shipped internationally as meat. The Investigators spent hundreds of hours afield and at shows with reptile poachers and illegal collectors. They wore body wires and button cameras and recorded their transactions. They built cases from the ground up through initial contact with violators on-line, at shows, and in the field. With the help of other Investigators and ECOs, they collected and incubated hundreds of turtle eggs to be used to help them integrate into poaching circles. They successfully traded with a smuggler from Canada and recovered an entire wild population of endangered massasauga rattlesnakes. In addition, the investigators worked very closely with other covert operators from Pennsylvania, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Environment Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The operation spread to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Alabama, Louisiana, California, Florida, Canada, Hawaii, and Maryland.
To date, twenty-seven individuals in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, Louisiana and Canada have been charged with wildlife crimes as a result of Operation Shellshock. Additional arrests are anticipated as off-shoot investigations continue. Most of the defendants have pled guilty, or have agreed to plead. The remaining defendants are expected to do the same. So far, over $42,000 has been collected in fines, one vehicle has been forfeited to the state, and one defendant has been sentenced to prison. Current plea agreements on the table total over $135,000, with a yet undetermined amount for several felony cases still under prosecution.
Operation Shellshock is the largest, most successful undercover wildlife operation the Department of Environmental Conservation has ever completed. It will stand out among operations done elsewhere as well, for both its magnitude and significance. Shellshock can, and will, be a springboard for positive change on all fronts involving ecologically significant species. New York will no longer be regarded as a State of unregulated trade in reptiles and amphibians. A strong message has been sent to the community of herp enthusiasts and collectors. Trafficking in reptilian or amphibian species native to New York endangers wild populations, is illegal and will not be tolerated. The public will be more aware of the role that animals such as timber rattlesnakes and spotted turtles play in our health and existence. The Division of Law Enforcement, armed with more knowledge of natural history, internet savvy, and site specific patrol areas, will increase its effectiveness to regularly locate and apprehend violators taking our wildlife. And, the habitats needed to sustain reptiles and amphibians such as our wetlands, vernal pools, grasslands, streams and lakes will become even more important in the eyes of our citizens.
By Lt. Dick Thomas, Bureau of Environmental Conservation Investigations