Number of criminal environmental cases referred to DOJ by Interior at nearly 25-year low

Number of criminal environmental cases referred to DOJ by Interior at nearly 25-year low
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The number of criminal environmental enforcement cases brought by the Interior Department has decreased by nearly 40 percent since 2016, according to internal data shared with The Hill.

Criminal environmental cases that often deal with unlicensed big-game hunting, illegal drug running, or oil and gas theft have all dropped to an almost 25-year low, according to the Interior data.

The tanking case referrals to the Department of Justice (DOJ), prosecutions filed and convictions come as law enforcement officer employment numbers at Interior are also on a downward swing.

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Officers within the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service are increasingly stretched thin, with employment numbers at both agencies at an all-time low, according to another set of information shared with The Hill.

The information was obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) through Freedom of Information Act requests obtained personally and through the use of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The number of cases referred by Interior to the DOJ to prosecute in fiscal 2018 stood at 132, down from 154 in 2017 and 216 cases in 2016, Obama’s last year in office. At the height of referrals in 2000, 835 cases were sought.

The number of cases ultimately taken up by the DOJ to convict has also significantly decreased. In 2018, the agency prosecuted 161 cases, the lowest number of cases taken up since 1991, according to the Interior data. The highest number of cases brought in one year was in 2007, with 644 cases prosecuted.

The pattern of shrinking referrals largely aligns with the drop in law enforcement numbers across the agency. Bureaus within the Interior Department have historically witnessed a decrease in full-time law enforcement staff. The effect spans multiple presidencies.

The National Park Service has experienced steady declines in its permanent law enforcement workforce. Rangers dropped by nearly 14 percent between 2005 and 2016, from 1,548 rangers to 1,331, according to internal data.

At the BLM, after a beefing up in ranger numbers in 2009, law enforcement numbers drooped. In 2016 there were 185 rangers within the BLM compared to the high of 224 in 2012. In 2017, the BLM increased ranger numbers to 202. 

Jeff Ruch, Pacific PEER director, said the data highlighted the importance of a robust Interior law enforcement crew.

“America’s natural resource heritage is at a growing risk of being looted with fewer cops on the beat inside agencies that are starving by attrition,” Ruch said in a statement.

“While there is growing attention to the infrastructure gap for capital improvements on national parks and other federal lands, we also need to start looking at the escalating human capital needs of these land management agencies.”

Interior did not return a request for comment.

Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service in the past year also canceled its permanent dual-function officer law enforcement program at Wildlife Refuges across the U.S. as a way to cut costs.

The department is facing a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog, a reality Trump administration officials have pointed to for cuts. Yet the Trump administration's budget proposal released in March suggested cutting funding to Interior by 14 percent.