By Karl Wickstrom
Normally a department for environmental advocacy and investigative journalism, this month’s “On the Conservation Front” and “Openers” take a look at the lighter side of fish and wildlife law enforcement. Featured are some of the zany and ironic cases of 2016, with a special emphasis on circumstances that would seem improbable if not outright fictional had they not taken place in our gloriously weird Sunshine State. Hence, “Only in Florida.”
Editor Jeff Weakley provides the back story, which is that Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) administers a Division of Law Enforcement whose 853 sworn personnel and support staff are vital to the protection of our state’s natural resources—of which citizens and visitors are also numbered. Officers daily (and nightly) hazard all kinds of conditions on our state’s lands and waters. They deal not only with petty poaching offenses, but first-responder emergencies and even hard crimes perpetrated by armed assailants. The officer called to investigate a raccoon with its head jammed in a peanut butter jar (true story) might find herself called later in the day to the scene of a boating accident involving the loss of human life.
Some basic stats about the FWC Division of Law Enforcement: Among vehicle assets, the FWC operates a fleet of 540 patrol vessels, ranging from small airboats to the 85-foot Gulf Sentry. The Division of Law Enforcement budget is approximately $118 million per year. The academy graduated 53 new officers last year (2016), with full police powers, versatile training and statewide jurisdiction. There are six regional divisions, and 15 offices, around the state. The Division also manages specialized Investigative/Intelligence, Boating and Waterways and Captive Wildlife/Environmental Investigations units. Search-and-rescue is another major function: approximately 1,000 persons are saved by FWC law enforcement officers annually: lost hikers, capsized boaters, injured hunters. The officers often work in conjunction with other agencies, including the federal National Marine Fisheries Service as well as the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security.
The FWC maintains a 24-hour toll-free Wildlife Alert hotline, 888-404-FWCC (888-404-3922) for citizens to report wildlife law violations anywhere in the state. If there is an emergency involving a threat to human life, dial 911 or Channel 16 VHF—it may be that an FWC officer will be first to arrive. But keep that Wildlife Alert on speed dial; it’s the one to call if you witness illegal gill-netting, a stranded marine mammal, or—yes— a shark in the neighborhood pool.