Friday, June 14, 2013

Clearing Customs in Calgary


Research I conducted on the issue of birds colliding with power lines and the subsequent papers I wrote and published on the research findings provided an avenue for me to consult with power companies and regulatory agencies proposing to construct structures in areas where birds congregated in large numbers.  I was able to apply those findings to potentially devastating situations ranging from Fairbanks, Alaska to Lawton, Oklahoma to Hartford, Connecticut.  I was once called in on an issue in Switzerland and another in Germany but unfortunately had to deal with those projects by phone.

In the early 1990s a major energy producing company in Canada was proposing to construct a massive 550 kilovolt power line across the heart of Alberta. The proposed routing would require that the line cross a large river that passes through the megalopolis of Edmonton and casual observations by the Canadian Wildlife Service and others suggested that the potential for major mortality among migrating birds (especially geese and ducks) was substantial.  Before various permits were to be issued to allow the project to proceed, the Canadian Wildlife Service (sister agency to my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) contacted me and requested my presence in Edmonton to give them a hint of how much bird mortality to expect.  Other research conducted by my agency and by others showed that there were simple measures that could be implemented when power lines are being constructed to reduce or eliminate the bird mortality hazard.  However first it was necessary to know if there was going to be a problem.

With a letter of invitation from the Canadian Wildlife Service in my day pack I boarded a United Airlines Express flight in Grand Island Nebraska and rode it to Denver where I connected to a real jet bound for Spokane, Washington.  In Spokane I caught a different United jet bound for Calgary where I could connect with an Air Canada flight to Edmonton.  The “Fly America” Act, a ridiculous piece of nationalistic legislation passed by the United States Congress required that I fly to my destination using American carriers and if an American carrier didn’t go to that destination then I had to fly one to as close as possible to my destination.  It was only there that I was allowed to use a foreign carrier.  It didn’t matter to Congress that following this rule not only increased the amount of time that federal employees had to be in the air, or did it matter to Congress that this ridiculous rule invariably cost the Treasury more money than if the foreign carrier was taken for the entire route.  Congress wanted to project an image of protecting American business no matter the cost.  At least I earned a lot more frequent flier miles this way.

Filling out the Canadian Customs and Immigration paperwork on approach to the Calgary airport I checked the box “business” under the heading of the purpose of my trip.  It really wasn’t business because I wasn’t buying or selling anything. At the same time it wasn’t a vacation or pleasure trip either so I chose to be as honest as possible.

Seeing that I had checked “business” on my entry card the smarmy Canadian Customs agent began grilling me over the business I was conducting.  It didn’t seem to matter that I was carrying and using a red United States passport with the word “Official” boldly stamped in gold on the cover.  Sgt. Preston wanted to know what was up and what I was selling.  He didn’t buy my story about evaluating a power line so he directed me into a small conference room, with no windows, where the interrogation began.  All this over checking “business” for the purpose of my trip!  I played their game as they played good cop – bad cop with me until I reached my limit of putting up with this nonsense.  It was then that I demanded that Canadian Customs immediately call the United States Consulate in Calgary because I was tired of thirty minutes of harassment over a box checked on a form.  When I demanded State Department intervention the bad cop of the good cop-bad cop duo asked me if I had any evidence that I was actually invited by the Canadian Wildlife Service to consult.  Reaching in my day pack I removed the Canadian Wildlife Service letter, signed by the agency director in Ottawa and handed it to the agent.  Reading it quickly he snapped “Why didn’t you tell us this before?”  As politely as possible I replied, “I did.  You just weren’t listening.”  Canadian Customs then escorted me to my Air Canada gate and wished me a safe and happy journey.  At the gate the good cop agent said, soto voce, “Next time lie and say you’re on vacation.”

Three days were devoted to evaluating the potential power line crossing routes and at the conclusion of the time I returned to the Edmonton airport for an Air Canada flight to Calgary where I would follow the same circuitous route back to Grand Island because that was the way the United States Congress wanted me to fly.  Sitting in the departure lounge awaiting my flight I noticed an American in a plaid shirt waiting with me.  The curious thing about the American is that in his carryon baggage he was transporting the rack of antlers of a moose!  He had apparently been hunting somewhere in Alberta, shot a sizeable moose, and was taking the antlers back home so they could adorn his office wall.  This was back in the days before baby’s milk and bottles of Evian water were considered weapons and the airlines allowed him to carry moose antlers in the cabin of the plane.

Being a former hunter who had twice unsuccessfully sought moose, I approached my fellow American to ask about his hunt and to find out about the moose.  Asking him politely about his trip he snarled at me in a heavy New York accent, “It’s none of your fucking business where I got this moose.”  True, it wasn’t, but I was just asking a question out of curiosity.  Telling him I had tried unsuccessfully to bag a moose during the two times I tried he barked,” Too bad. Now what the fuck will it take to make you leave me alone?”  The last three words were spoken in a volume much higher than the earlier words. Taking the hint I returned to my seat where I stewed. Eventually the flight was called, we all boarded including Manhattan Mike and his moose, and we headed to Calgary.  There it turned out Manhattan Mike was following me at least to Spokane.

With few exceptions all flights from Canada to the United States clear United States Customs and Immigration in the originating Canadian city.  Given the volume of flights from Canada this is probably done to reduce the number of people who have to clear Customs in their American city.  Doing so means that the flight I was to take from Calgary to Spokane would operate as a domestic flight and we wouldn’t have to waste time in Spokane doing what we were doing in Calgary.

When the Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 3371–3378) was passed in 1900, it became the first federal law protecting wildlife. It enforces civil and criminal penalties for the illegal trade of animals and plants. Today it regulates the import of any species protected by international or domestic law.

Under the Lacey Act, it is unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported, or sold: 1) in violation of U.S. or Indian law, or 2) in interstate or foreign commerce involving any fish, wildlife, or plants taken possessed or sold in violation of State or foreign law.  The law covers all fish and wildlife and their parts or products, plants protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and those protected by State law. 

I was well aware of the Lacey Act from my dealings with my agency’s Special Agents who enforced federal wildlife law.  As we stood in line waiting to clear Customs in Calgary I saw Manhattan Mike standing in line behind me grinning and looking stupid with moose antlers protruding from his back pack.  Still upset with the way he treated me in Edmonton I quickly devised a plan.  As I handed my official United States government passport to the US Immigration and Customs person I also handed him my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identification badge.  Stating to the Customs person that I was not in law enforcement so I had no authority to handle the issue myself, I said that I was concerned that they guy behind me in the plaid shirt with the moose antlers might be in violation of the Lacey Act and as a professional courtesy would he mind shaking him down for a potential Lacey Act violation?

The agent, most likely someone who spent 99 percent of each day checking out Maude and Edna as they returned to Poughkeepsie from a week in Banff National Park leaped at the chance to actually do something he was trained to do.  With a huge smile he said, simply, "sure."

Once I was cleared to leave I stood to the side of the flow of passengers and watched what happened.  When Manhattan Mike approached the Customs agent who had cleared me, I heard the agent talk into a microphone and suddenly two other Customs agents appeared. They began grilling Mike with all manner of questions.  They were on him like a wolverine on red meat.  They had his bags open and the moose antlers exposed and after a few minutes they collected him and his belongings and took him into a separate room where they likely continued the interrogation.  As they did I casually walked to my gate and boarded the plane. Manhattan Mike never made the flight.  

In all likelihood Manhattan Mike was clean as a whistle and was nowhere near in violation of the Lacey Act or any other federal law.  However maybe the next time someone asks him a polite question he will wonder if the person asking knows something he doesn't know and he won’t be so cavalier and snotty in his response.

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