Nature-for-profit

by Sarah Gilman

In the market for a Siberian weasel fur coat? A pair of eel-skin cowboy boots? A Louis Vuitton purse made from ostrich and monitor lizard skin? Look no further than lonestaronline.com. In February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an eBay-style rolling auction of some 300,000 (HOT! NEW!) items from its National Wildlife Property Repository in Commerce City, Colo.

At 22,000 square feet, the mini-mall-sized office and warehouse is the final resting place for more than 1.5 million exotic and familiar creatures, their body parts and objects made from those parts -- all seized by or forfeited to the federal agency for violations of national and international laws covering trade in wildlife and rare, threatened and endangered species. Rows upon rows of shelves are crammed with a creepy dead menagerie -- tiger, leopard, antelope -- bagged, tagged and stacked away. The shelves are so crammed, in fact, that the repository had to shut its doors to the endless stream of contraband last year. Hence the massive sale -- only the second in Fish and Wildlife's history.

Though the agency assures potential buyers that all sale items stem from minor infractions -- generally businesses that failed to comply with basic import laws or obtain necessary permits -- the auction offers a disturbing hint of the scale of illegal wildlife trafficking, the focus of this issue's cover story by Craig Welch.

Dire figures abound in the media: Illegal trade in wildlife is worth $6 billion per year, or $10 billion, even $20 billion. As Welch points out, though, no one is really sure how big the problem is, only that, as the economy continues to globalize -- with easy access to buyers and sellers online and massive markets developing in Asia -- it's gotten much, much worse. The American West, with its treasure trove of rare animals, insects and plants and its handy international ports on the coast, has become a major, unintentional supplier. And the number of creatures being poached or trafficked, and sometimes pushed to the brink as a result, is on the rise.

It wasn't so long ago that this region lost its vast herds of buffalo to a scorched-earth hunting campaign, and grizzlies, wolves, elk and  bighorn sheep vanished from much of their historic range. Bringing back some of these species has taken lots of money as well as direct intervention and intensive management. But trafficking is a much more insidious threat to wildlife. And stopping it -- whether it's illegal  trade in black bear gallbladders or rare Kaibab swallowtail butterflies from the Grand Canyon ... well, that requires more stealthy tactics: Namely, creativity, and more than a little cunning, as you'll see.

© High Country News