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  1. Environment

DeSantis plan: Move wildlife cops to agency not known for enforcing rules

The governor cites efficiency as reason. Details are scarce.

The sweeping list of environmental programs and promises that new Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled last week included a lot of the usual targets: Clean up water pollution, end toxic algae blooms, restore the Everglades.

But there was one that wasn't usual at all: Move "environmental crimes law enforcement" from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"We're going to do some reorganization to be more effective protecting the environment," DeSantis said during a Thursday news conference announcing his plans.

A swap such as the one the governor has proposed is unusual, in part because the two agencies' approach to enforcing environmental laws could not be more different.

The Wildlife Commission has 853 positions for gun-toting officers patrolling the state's fields, swamps, forests and waterways. They have racked up a series of high-profile arrests in recent years, sometimes by running lengthy undercover operations. One such operation, which resulted in the 2017 arrest of nine people for alligator poaching, involved setting up a real alligator farm that undercover officers ran for two years.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: To catch a poacher, Florida wildlife officials set up undercover alligator farm.

Meanwhile, thanks to the anti-regulatory push by prior Gov. Rick Scott, the Department of Environmental Protection, which has no sworn law officers, has spent the past eight years retreating from enforcement.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: How Rick Scott's environmental protection agencies backed off regulation

The more permissive approach was spelled out in a 2011 memo to the staff from the agency's new deputy secretary of regulation: "Where noncompliance occurs … your first consideration should be whether you can bring about a return to compliance without enforcement." Instead of hitting polluters with fines, agency staffers were directed to send out "compliance assistance letters," offering to show businesses how to get back into compliance."

It's not clear how moving law enforcement officers from the Wildlife Commission and to an agency that has shied away from enforcement will work. Officials at the two agencies had no specifics. A DeSantis spokesman did not respond to repeated calls and emails, beginning Thursday, seeking more information.

Susan Neel of the wildlife agency said Thursday, "We support Governor DeSantis' direction and will work closely with his office and DEP to ensure a smooth transition. This won't impact our ability to enforce fish and wildlife regulations."

"Further details regarding implementation of the executive order will be shared as they become available," Sarah Shellabarger, a spokeswoman for the environmental agency, said Thursday.

After repeated questions by the Tampa Bay Times, the environmental agency's new communications director, Mara Gambineri, said in an email Tuesday, "it is the environmental crimes unit that will transition, not FWC law enforcement as a whole." She did not respond to questions about what that meant.

All of DeSantis' various programs and plans were wrapped up in a lengthy executive order he signed last Thursday. The part about environmental law enforcement offers little on the why and how, other than saying it will "align resources focused on environmental protection and ensure strong enforcement of Florida's environmental laws."

The Department of Environmental Protection used to employ armed law enforcement officers, back when it was known as the Department of Natural Resources. They constituted the Florida Marine Patrol, sometimes known as "the grouper troopers," and they cruised the state's waterways searching for boaters violating the state's fishing and boating regulations.

But when Florida's voters approved the creation of a state Wildlife Commission in 1998, the new agency acquired those marine patrol officers as part of its law enforcement arm. Its officers were in charge of enforcing the state's laws on hunting and fishing, or violating the rules protecting animals on the state's endangered and threatened list.

After Natural Resources merged with the Department of Environmental Regulation to become the Department of Environmental Protection in the 1990s, the only law enforcement officers left were the state's park police. But during the Charlie Crist administration, those remaining law officers were moved over to the Wildlife Commission too, said Eric Eikenberg, Crist's former chief of staff and now the CEO of the Everglades Foundation.

Eikenberg served on the environmental arm of the DeSantis transition team. He said he did not recall any discussion about taking any law enforcement away from the Wildlife Commission. He said it appears to him that DeSantis' order "is basically reversing what occurred" under Crist.

Other environmental advocates speculated about what DeSantis had in mind. Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation for more than 30 years, said, "It may be to shift environmental pollution enforcement to DEP and have fish and wildlife enforcement continue to reside at" the Wildlife Commission.

Another theory, put forth by Jerry Phillips of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, is that "it could signal an effort to give the appearance of a more aggressive" environmental agency after so many years of the opposite.

The key question, Phillips said, is whether DeSantis wants the environmental agency's relocated law enforcement officers to handle cases involving witnesses from the Wildlife Commission, because "that's just asking for problems between the two agencies. We'll have to wait and see if this and the rest of the sure-to-come changes … are positive, but I'm not holding my breath."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at . Follow @craigtimes.