‘Operation Slither’ strikes illegal reptile dealers|
State conservation officers today announced the conclusion of a two-year, undercover operation targeting illegal reptile dealers in Michigan.
More than a dozen tickets were issued and nine search warrants were executed by state and federal law enforcement teams throughout Michigan on Saturday morning. Michigan was among eight states nationwide coordinating simultaneous enforcement of illegal reptile dealers. It was the largest enforcement action of this kind in history.
Operation Slither, as it was known in Michigan, focused on reptile dealers suspected of dealing animals illegally captured from the wilds of Michigan, and exotic species that are otherwise illegal for possession and sale.
Officers had long suspected that certain Michigan reptile dealers were trafficking in wild-caught, protected Michigan species, but the dealer network was known to be a tightly-knit community. After more than a decade of unsuccessful undercover attempts, a Department of Natural Resources undercover officer infiltrated the dealer network in June 2001.
Since Michigan law requires officers to prove that animals recovered are wild-caught, the officer posed as a snake and turtle trapper. Approaching the dealers from the supply side allowed DNR to document evidence carefully.
Federal undercover investigators also were working the dealer network nationwide, posing as dealers. Michigan cooperated with the US Fish and Wildlife officers, sharing evidence that resulted in several of the cases exposed in the state.
Collectors value reptiles based on specimen quality and rarity. Michigan is home to more than a dozen protected reptile and amphibian species.
“Many of Michigan’s rarest reptiles, already struggling with reduced numbers and continually shrinking habitat, have been further depleted over the years by the actions of unscrupulous dealers,” said Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director K.L. Cool. “This operation sends a strong message to individuals who would plunder Michigan’s resources for profit, and it underscores the DNR’s commitment to protecting and preserving our natural resources. I commend our officers for their continued commitment to excellence.”
Michigan enforcement teams recovered nearly 200 individual reptiles Saturday. They are now under the care of a licensed veterinarian, pending court hearings for those cited. Officials will return as many as possible to the wild.
“Ensuring the Michigan’s wildlife and natural resources will be around for generations to come is job one at the DNR,” said Lt. Governor John D. Cherry. “The end result of this undercover operation will be that poachers and those who illegally take protected species will think twice. The investigation coupled with a strong prosecution will help us make sure that Michigan reptiles are indeed protected.”
The cases will be handled by the state Attorney General’s office.
“The Attorney General’s office will continue working side-by-side with the DNR on this case and will aggressively pursue prosecution in order to bring these dealers to justice,” said Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox. “Anyone looking to illegally profit from the black-market trade of animals should be forewarned: you will face prosecution in Michigan.”