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Manatees, and more, make officer's days

Imagine finding a job where you can combine your chosen profession with your favorite hobby.

Stan Garner has found just such a gig.

The 40-year-old Georgia native is the new refuge officer for the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Crystal River refuge.

Finding the ideal job didn't come quickly for Garner. He served in the Air Force for 10 years, working enforcement details and ferreting out explosives and narcotics. Then he did a stint with the Justice Department. But while there, he began to think about doing something different, something in Florida, something outdoors.

More than six years ago he started applying for jobs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but those jobs are few and far between.

In mid 2003 his luck changed and he got the enforcement position at Crystal River. An avid boater and outdoorsman, Garner felt he had found the perfect fit.

He underwent months of training through the agency and an internship with officers at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in north Florida, in the Keys and in Puerto Rico.

Garner started work on his own in late May, just in time for the Memorial Day rush at Egmont Key in Pinellas County, another part of the refuge complex.

This is his first manatee season. Manatee protection and patrols in Citrus County waters swallow up most of his time during the winter months.

"I love this job," he said. "This was right up my alley. I've been an avid diver since 1985 . . . and with this job, my office is a boat."

While the actual law enforcement portion of the job is the same as in any enforcement position, Garner said there are some other noted differences. For one thing, he said, most enforcement jobs require about 90 percent enforcement and 10 percent education. Not this one. He said educating the public is about 90 percent of what he does.

"The majority of the reaction I see is, "I didn't know,' so as soon as you show them how shallow the water is and how slow the manatees move and that they may not be able to get out of the way, most of them are very receptive, very apologetic," Garner said. "Most of the people are very responsible and compliant."

Garner said there is a time to be strict with enforcement, but there is also room to provide people the information they need so they can comply with the law.

"I'm a laid-back guy. I'm older. I feel like you should treat people with respect," he said. "I'm here protecting manatees. I'm not just here busting people."

It might partially be the atmosphere where Garner meets the people he deals with.

"They're out there letting their hair down. They're in have-a-good-time mode, not break-the-law mode," he said.

The officer is aided in his work by locals who volunteer with the federal agency's Manatee Watch program and citizens and tour boat operators who also help police the rules and do not hesitate to contact him if laws are broken.

"They're an incredible asset," he said.

The job requires many six-day weeks and working weekends because those are the times the waterways are filled. But the work is largely seasonal. Sometimes Garner is patrolling the Pinellas refuges by boat or on land, protecting sea turtle nests and birds in high public-use areas. Sometimes he's visiting the huge Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge to be sure people are staying away from the areas closed to protect the rare whooping crane flock or the many archaeological sites deep within the refuge.

"I think that's the best part of this job, the freedom to work," he said. "It's not monotonous, routine, mundane. There really is something different every day."

The move to Crystal River fits with what Garner said he wants to do for quite some time.

"To me, it's a really valuable service that we provide. I grew up hunting and in the woods and I continued to see it degrade," Garner said. "I'm out there to improve it so that it stays the way it was when I grew up."

The task is too important to ignore, he said.

"These are our natural resources and we can't let that slide," he said. "Somebody has to look out for them or they won't be there anymore."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendtsptimes.com

Legal protection

West Indian manatees in the United States are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal. West Indian manatees are also protected by the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, which states, "It is unlawful for any person at any time, intentionally or negligently, to annoy, molest, harass or disturb any manatee." Anyone convicted of violating Florida's law faces a maximum fine of $1,000 and imprisonment for 60 days. Conviction on the federal level is punishable by a $50,000 fine and one year in prison.

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