From late 2019 through 2022, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued twenty-one whistleblower awards to individuals who provided high-quality information about wildlife crime. The existence of these awards has not been previously made public and details about them were made available to Whistleblower Network News in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiry.
Each awarded whistleblower contributed to a successful FWS investigation into wildlife crime, ranging from the poaching of individual animals to international wildlife trafficking operations.
The awards, which range in size from $250 to $125,000 but were mostly for between $2,000 and $5,000, stem from little known amendments passed in the 1980s which allow FWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to pay out monetary awards to whistleblowers who report violations of U.S. wildlife laws, including most notably the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act.
Over the years, FWS has faced scrutiny for not fully publicizing and utilizing these whistleblower award provisions. While other agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), have set-up highly publicized and effective whistleblower award programs which have collected billions of dollars and awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to whistleblowers, FWS has continued to pay-out small awards with little to no publicity.
In 2018, the agency was told by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to update its regulations to better incentivize whistleblowers. While FWS did update its regulations in response to the GAO report it never published them. They were not made public until WNN reported on them in 2021 following a FOIA request.
For whistleblower advocates, the documents provided by FWS continue to tell a story of untapped potential. The documents reveal numerous whistleblower success stories but advocates believe there could be even more should further action be taken, whether in the form of increased efforts by FWS or new, stronger wildlife whistleblower legislation passed by Congress.
“Fish and Wildlife continues to radically underutilize whistleblower awards,” says whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn, the author of a landmark 2016 paper on wildlife whistleblower awards. “The program has tremendous potential and could revolutionize the enforcement of wildlife crime. Fish and Wildlife needs to follow the lead of the SEC and other agencies and implement a robust whistleblower award program.”
Wildlife Whistleblower Success Stories
The FOIA documents provided to WNN tell numerous whistleblower success stories. FWS only pays out awards if a whistleblower’s disclosure significantly contributes to furthering an investigation or results in a successful prosecution. Thanks to the whistleblowers, the agency was able to hold criminals accountable and in numerous cases halt ongoing wildlife crime schemes.
The wildlife crimes which whistleblowers exposed ranged from the individual killings of endangered animals including grizzly bears and gray wolves to complex wildlife trafficking operations such as one involving the poaching and trafficking of North American species of turtles to supply the Asian exotic pet trade.
“The documents demonstrate that whistleblowers are critical for effective enforcement,” says Kohn. “FWS must utilize the tools at its disposal to incentivize reporting.”
The FOIA documents include the requests for awards submitted by the FWS agents who worked with the whistleblowers. These requests highlight time and time again the critical role whistleblowers played in the success of FWS’ enforcement efforts.
In multiple award requests, FWS agents state that successful investigations would not have been possible, and would not have even been initiated, had a whistleblower not come forward and provided information and ongoing assistance to the agency.
For example, multiple requests state “Given [the whistleblower’s] posilion, connections and expertise, this investigation would not have been successfully developed and prosecuted without his assistance.”
Another request to award a whistleblower who exposed the ongoing interstate trafficking of endangered Wood Turtles notes that “It is highly unlikely that [the Office of Law Enforcement (OLE)] would have initiated this investigation or that the investigation would have had a successful outcome, had it not been for [the whistleblower] bringing the unlawful scheme to the attention of OLE and continuing to provide information throughout the investigation.”
The documents also underscore the crucial role that the offer of monetary awards played in incentivizing the whistleblowers to come forward. For example, in 2016, the FWS publicized an offer of a $5,000 award for information on the illegal killing of an endangered gray wolf in Southeast Oregon. A whistleblower subsequently came forward and provided FWS with the identity of the shooter.
“There have been seven (7) wolf death investigations conducted in Oregon and Washington since 2013, including the death of OR 28,” the FWS’ Request for Payment of Reward Approval states. “Of the seven (7) investigations, the only case that resulted in a prosecution was the death of OR 28. The success in the OR 28 case was directly related to the information provided as a result of the reward offer.”
As justification for paying out awards, the FWS agents also repeatedly stress the danger that whistleblowers put themselves in by coming forward with information on wildlife crime.
For example, one document reveals that a whistleblower who reported illegal turtle poaching reported that the primary defendant in the case “threatened harm to him and his son, should they cooperate with the investigation.”
“A Tiny Amount of Cases with Token Award Amounts”
While the FOIA documents reveal numerous whistleblower success stories, the main takeaway for Kohn and other whistleblower advocates are how few awards were paid out.
From November 21, 2019 through August 12, 2022, FWS paid out twenty-one whistleblower awards. While one award was for $125,000, the rest were for $10,000 or less.
“These award statistics are shockingly small,” says Kohn. “This a tiny amount of cases with token award amounts that would never incentivize future whistleblowers nor deter criminals. There can be no other takeaway besides that FWS is continuing to fail to utilize its ability to award whistleblowers.”
In contrast to FWS, other U.S. agencies with successful whistleblower award programs have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to whistleblowers in recent years. For example, during the 2021 fiscal year, the SEC awarded approximately $564 million to 108 individuals. In the 2022 fiscal year, qui tam whistleblowers received $448 million under the False Claims Act.
“Extinctions are forever. Loss of habitat is often irreplaceable. FWS must implement the whistleblower program in accordance with the highly successful procedures used by other agencies,” Kohn says.
A Long History of Underutilizing Wildlife Whistleblower Awards
The existence of wildlife whistleblower award laws is not well-known, but they actually date back to before the 1986 amendments to the False Claims Act which are considered the first modern whistleblower award law.
In 1981, in response to growing public awareness and concern around extinction and habitat loss, Congress amended the Lacey Act (the nation’s premier anti-wildlife trafficking law) to include whistleblower award provisions. The amendment authorized the payment of monetary awards to whistleblowers who assist in cases under the Lacey Act as well as the Endangered Species Act. However, unlike modern whistleblower award laws, the awards are purely discretionary, there is no mandate or guarantee that they will be granted.
Then just a year later, Congress went even a step further and extended whistleblower award provisions to any law administered by the FWS or NOAA, in effect whistleblowers reporting violations of any U.S. wildlife law could now receive awards.
In the following decades, however, these whistleblower provisions have been essentially ignored. Neither the FWS or NOAA has created a whistleblower office and have done very little to publicize the possibility of whistleblower awards to the public.
In 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a scathing report on the agencies’ handling of whistleblower awards. The report, “Combating Wildlife Trafficking: Opportunities Exist to Improve the Use of Financial Rewards,” is blunt in its analysis of how much these award provisions have been prioritized by FWS and NOAA.
“FWS and NOAA have not reviewed the effectiveness of their use of rewards. The agencies have not done so because using rewards has generally not been a priority,” the report states.
The GAO report further explains that “FWS and NOAA communicate little information to the public on rewards. For example, most agency websites did not indicate that providing information on wildlife trafficking could qualify for a reward. This is inconsistent with federal standards that call for management to communicate quality information so that external parties can help achieve agency objectives.”
In the report, GAO recommended that the FWS amend the regulations of their whistleblower program in order to better incentivize whistleblowers. FWS amended the regulations but failed to publish them. The amended regulations were not made public until WNN published them in 2021 after obtaining them in response to a FOIA request.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) is responsible for the enforcement of several federal wildlife laws, including, the Lacey Act, the Endangered Species Act, Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to name a few,” FWS told WNN in response to a request for comment on the agency’s use of whistleblower awards. “These federal laws, to include the Fish and Wildlife Revenue Enhancement Act, provide statutory authority for the payment of rewards. OLE has long recognized the value of rewarding concerned citizens that step forward and provide essential information in our investigations and has a long history of doing so.”
“OLE has taken the opportunity to provide awareness training to special agents and wildlife inspectors at their annual trainings on the use of rewards as a ‘tool’ in the USFWS enforcement toolbox,” FWS further stated about their plans to publicize awards. “Additionally, OLE developed portable banners which can be used to advise the public that rewards may be available for reporting wildlife crimes. Those outreach items are available for use by OLE and partner staff at outreach events.”
Calls for Better Utilization
In 2016, Kohn published a landmark article on whistleblower awards for wildlife whistleblowers entitled “Monetary Rewards for Wildlife Whistleblowers: A Game-Changer in Wildlife Trafficking Detection and Deterrence.”
Since that paper was published, there has been a growing recognition of the power of whistleblowers in exposing wildlife crimes. The National Whistleblower Center (NWC), where Kohn serves as Chairman of the Board, has been particularly involved in advocating for the utilization of whistleblowers in the fight against wildlife crime.
Wildlife organizations such as Association of Zoos and Aquariums have come out in support of whistleblower awards. While international organizations including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have passed resolutions incorporating whistleblower protections.
“The importance of whistleblower protections and awards in combating wildlife and other environmental crime is increasingly recognized by the international community including CITES, the USAID supported Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge of which NWC was a grand prize winner, IUCN – the International Union for Conservation of Nature, UNCAC – UN Convention Against Corruption among others,” says Scott Hajost, Senior Wildlife and Climate Policy Advisor for NWC.
In addition to calling for FWS to better leverage its current authority, some advocates have pushed for new legislation modeled on the whistleblower provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act (which established the SEC Whistleblower Program).
“Legislation is urgently needed to ensure that wildlife whistleblowers have the same protections as those that expose fraud on Wall Street,” says Kohn. “Endangered species need the same protections as multi-millionaire investors.”
In 2019 and again in 2021, Representatives Don Young (R-AK) and John Garamendi (D-CA) introduced the bipartisan Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act (WCATA). The bill, modeled off Dodd-Frank, would institute mandatory awards for qualified whistleblowers and require FWS to establish a whistleblower office to oversee the agency’s whistleblower operations.
The WCATA was widely supported by both whistleblower and wildlife advocacy groups. Despite bipartisan support, it stalled in Congress. Whistleblower advocates are currently calling on Congress to reintroduce and pass the WCATA or another modern whistleblower award law for wildlife whistleblowers.
As part of its efforts in this manner, NWC has launched a wildlife whistleblower pledge campaign to help build support for wildlife whistleblowers.