FWS system arms inspectors with fresh data

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) plans to launch a new computer system this year that will give more up-to-date information to the people who enforce wildlife trade, helping them keep a tighter rein on illegal animal trade.

Each year, about $3 billion worth of legal wild animals and wild-animal products— from crocodile skins to live parrots— come into and go out of the United States. In an effort to protect some species of wildlife, the federal government has placed strict limits on how much wildlife can be imported and exported each year.

But wildlife inspectors at U.S. ports of entry often do not have the latest data on whether particular exporters and importers have exceeded those limits due to the lengthy process involved with getting new data into the system. A new system called Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) 2000 should help change that.

The system, which was demonstrated last month to top law enforcement officials at FWS, will let inspectors use an agency intranet to enter data on importers and exporters as they move products into and out of the country. That data then will be available immediately to FWS officials at other ports accessing LEMIS 2000.

"The data-entry part of it is important because we need to have that information in there so that other ports can know what's going on," said Larry Pullen, section chief of systems development services at FWS. "It gives us a better chance to track the costs, the value of products coming into the country, and it does it more quickly now."

FWS now puts data into a minicomputer at a central location, with data-entry personnel keying in information from paper forms. When an inspector in the field accesses the system to see if an exporter or importer is within its quotas or to validate its permit for wildlife trade, the information the inspector receives is often weeks or months old. This makes it easier for an exporter or an importer to break quotas, especially if they are bringing products through more than one port of entry.

The benefits of the new application extend beyond its use at the ports of entry, according to FWS. For example, by giving FWS access to up-to-date data, LEMIS 2000 will help FWS investigators search for suspicious patterns of activity at the ports, piecing together information on suspected wildlife smugglers and pinpointing cases where companies are breaking quotas on purpose, the agency said.

"We're the ones who are supposed to catch the bad guys when they're bringing in parrots from South America," said Bill Brooks, information resources management chief at FWS.

But some FWS observers are concerned about the demands LEMIS 2000 puts on FWS inspectors.

"My concern is that it takes inspectors away from doing wildlife inspections and doing data entry instead," said Craig Hoover, program officer for the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Program at the World Wildlife Fund.

Still, Hoover applauded attempts by FWS to get more up-to-date information in its systems, and he said the new system is only part of the solution to staunch excessive or illegal wildlife trade.

"Illegal wildlife trade is an enormous, enormous business," he said. "This system addresses only part of it."

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