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BY JESSECA WHALEN
Posing proudly before a snow-studded Alaskan mountain, Lucinda Schroeder lifts the head of a mountain goat, its normally pristine coat tinted pink with a smattering of blood. But in this case, a picture doesn’t tell a thousand words, and her pose is just that – a pose.
The backstory is far more complex. After spending 30 years as the first female undercover investigator out of 230 special agents in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Schroeder is an expert at slipping into the guise of poacher. Now retired, Schroeder has accumulated photographs of her on illegal hunts from hundreds of cases. Looking at them, one would think she was a conscienceless killer who could not careless about wildlife and the laws in place to protect them. That was exactly what she wanted people to believe.
“Because I’m a military brat, I grew up changing, adapting to new roles,” Schroeder says. “So feeling uncomfortable in those situations wasn’t a big deal.”
The situation she is best known for is the Alaska mountain goat case. One of her most memorable cases, it is the subject of “A Hunt for Justice: The True Story of a Woman Undercover Wildlife Agent,” the book that allowed her to qualify for OWAA membership in 2005. Schroeder says that she joined OWAA because it was the only national outdoor writers association and because “it has a great reputation, so belonging to that organization is pretty important.”
A harrowing tale of mystery, greed and the dangerous magnitude of illegal poaching operations in the remote Brooks Mountain Range, “A Hunt for Justice” offers a surprising peek into the life of an undercover wildlife investigator.
“Game wardens face unique challenges,” Schroeder says. “Almost everyone they walk up to has a gun, usually out in the middle of nowhere. I wanted people to know how hard it is to make a wildlife case. I have hundreds of letters from people who’ve read my book and had no idea that there’s that much involved in catching poachers.”
One of her partners on the Alaska mountain goat case, Tim Eicher, says that Schroeder’s investigative skills paved the way for female agents who followed her.
“Schroeder was the first of the first,” Eicher says. “She did very well … despite her outgoing, sweet demeanor, she was tough as nails.”
Living in the remote wilderness with people who threaten to kill investigating wildlife agents takes a tough-as-nails personality – and an acting ability – that many people don’t have. Schroeder says that when you’re participating in an illegal hunt, it isn’t really about courage. Rather, it’s about trusting in your abilities.
“You have to have the confidence to overcome adverse circumstances. Also, it takes maturity, something I learned young. I was 40 years old when I was 18,” she laughs, the softest hint of a Western twang lacing the notes.
It also helps to believe in what you’re fighting for. After Schroeder graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in criminology, she decided that she wanted to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service instead of the FBI. In part, this was because there was even more prejudice against female agents in the FBI (prior to 1971, it was illegal for women to carry firearms in federal service), but also because she wanted to be part of the team that brought poachers to justice.
“I had a kinetic connection with that cause,” she says. “It’s different than catching people who deal drugs. You’re talking about killing species that can never be replaced.”
In addition, Schroeder says the percentage of unsolved homicide cases is far less than the percentage of unsolved wildlife crimes.
Eicher explains that this is because wildlife cases are “victimless crimes.”
“When Harvey the bull elk gets killed, his buddies don’t call 911,” he jokes.
That’s why it’s important for agents to go undercover and get right in the criminals’ inner circle. Otherwise, no one is likely to step forward to testify for the poached animal. Women, Eicher says, are extremely important investigators.
“They can do things men can’t,” he says. “Men to this day underestimate women, especially in law enforcement, making it easy to win their target’s trust. Cindy [Lucinda] was exceptional at this.”
And she never had any moral problem bringing the people she caught to trial. However, not all agents can separate themselves from the task at hand.
“I know people who couldn’t finish the job, and weren’t able to turn in the people they investigated,” Schroeder says. “Being able to do that is a hallmark of this business. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be in undercover work.”
To protect herself and her family, Schroeder’s address is listed in New Mexico, nowhere near where she actually lives. The fear that someone she turned in will come back to haunt her is there, but she doesn’t dwell on it. She and her husband, a retired wildlife biologist, recently celebrated their daughter’s wedding. Events like this keep distant shadows sequestered. Schroeder rests easy, knowing that when she returns to the Brooks Mountains (and she plans to), no bloody stain will mar the beauty of the creatures she risked her life to protect. “A Hunt for Justice” was published in 2006, and is currently available on www.globepequot.com and www.amazon.com.♦
— Jesseca Whalen was the fall semester intern at OWAA HQs. Born and raised in Idaho, she’s been in Montana for five years while completing a B.A. in journalism and B.S. in marketing.