Good morning everyone and thank you for joining us at this important forum.
Kate, I want to start by thanking you for the incredible work you did on this film. You put your own personal safety at risk to shed light on the scope of the devastation that is happening because of the ivory and rhino horn trade. Likewise, I want to thank everyone else here today, and your organizations, for having the courage to tackle the terrible problem of wildlife trafficking.
I’m thankful to be here on behalf of the Attorney General and the Department to chair the second of today’s roundtables, which will focus on identifying solutions, strategies, and priorities for enhancing wildlife trafficking enforcement.
The tragedy highlighted by Kate’s film seems like a world away. But wherever you go in the world, you will find a strong and unbreakable bond between people and wildlife. And so I suspect for each of us the issue can be brought home by—well—thinking about our own homes.
For me that home is Florida. It is hard to be a Floridian and not appreciate the majesty of the animal kingdom. I say this not just because our backyards are full of lizards, snakes, and the occasional gator, but because Florida is one of this country’s richest and most diverse habitats for animal life. In the Everglades alone, there are more than 700 animal species, including dozens of threatened or endangered species.
Moreover, Florida has a special place in our nation’s heritage of combatting the wildlife trade. The Sunshine State is home to several species of heron, including both the snowy white and great egret. Tragically, both egrets were hunted almost to extinction in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The birds were prized for their breeding plumes, which were used to decorate women’s hats. At the time, the plumes were valued at twice the price of gold.
Hunters killed and skinned the mature birds, leaving orphaned hatchlings to starve or be eaten by crows. “It was a common thing for a rookery of several hundred birds to be attacked by the plume hunters, and in two or three days utterly destroyed.” Then, as now, the local devastation of a species was driven by the international commercial market. For the egrets, it was the milliners in London and New York.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act saved these birds by outlawing the taking of migratory birds and the interstate transport of birds taken in violation of state law. With these protections, the egrets rebounded quickly and today it is common for us Floridians to spot both the great white and snowy egret—and they can also be found beyond their historic range in parts of California, Central America, and the Dakotas during their migrations.
These majestic birds tell an important story about how legal protections and law enforcement actions can help a species survive and thrive. Species like these herons are incredibly vulnerable to humans when we allow a market for their parts to flourish. But they are also incredibly resilient, and with the right support, they can rebound from the brink of extinction.
Today, the Department of Justice continues to pursue individuals who would exploit protected wildlife for their own illegal gain. Keeping the focus on my home state, we can see examples of this work from just the last few years. In April 2018, for example, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida filed charges against six defendants for their involvement in trafficking more than four-hundred migratory birds. As alleged in the indictment, the wildlife trafficking involved instances of severe animal cruelty and resulted in injury or even death to the birds. As a result of this operation, more than one-hundred native Florida birds were rescued and released in Everglades National Park.
In another case from this year, two men pled guilty in the Southern District of Florida for stealing hundreds of sea turtle eggs. And that same month, yet another man was sentenced in the Northern District of Florida for illegally exporting elephant ivory from Tallahassee to Germany, Canada, Thailand, Russia, and the U.K. This case demonstrates that wildlife trafficking is simultaneously a local problem and an international one—and local preservation efforts can be felt around the world.
The Environment and Natural Resources Division is dedicated to this work and to enforcing the legal protections for our wildlife. It is a great privilege to work with them—lawyers who are dedicated to a cause larger than themselves. Jeff Wood, our Acting Assistant Attorney General for ENRD, lives that mission every day and it is my pleasure to turn the floor over to him to moderate our second panel.
But before I do so, let me just say a word about Jeff. He has served as the acting head of the division for almost two years now, which is perhaps the longest anyone has ever held the acting title and longer than many Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General hold the position. He has done an incredible job. He is a first-rate lawyer, an expert in environmental law, and a leader of the highest caliber. The American people are fortunate to have benefitted from his service this past two years. We are about to welcome another Jeff — Jeff Clark — when he is sworn in next week as the Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General, but it is important recognize the work that Jeff Wood has done. Please join me in applauding his tenure.
Jeff, thank you for your exceptional leadership of this Division, and particularly for your leadership on this important issue. The floor is yours.