September 20, 2011

Sneak Attack Against Regulation of Dangerous Snakes Countered in House of Representatives

Guest blogger Peter T. Jenkins is a lawyer and consultant working with the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species (NECIS), committed to preventing further harm from invasive, non-native plants and animals. He is Executive Director of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention (CISP).

If the federal government cannot regulate huge constrictor snakes that have already invaded twice in Florida, are preying on Endangered Species Act-listed species, can readily invade in other States and have killed more than a dozen people in recent decades, then what can it regulate? This all came to a head in Congress last week.

On Tuesday of last week, the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species learned from a friendly Capitol Hill source that the following day the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, under Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), was going to highlight this issue of regulating invasive snakes as part of his running assault against federal rulemaking. (The September 14th hearing promised an exploration of "How a Broken Process Leads to Flawed Regulations".) The late notice Majority staff gave to Minority staff and the public on the substance of the hearing and the witness list speaks for itself.

Representative Issa’s staff had invited a snake breeder, David Barker, to testify against a long-standing proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list nine species of large constrictor snakes - boas, pythons, and anacondas - as prohibited “injurious species” under the Lacey Act (Issa also dedicated four pages to criticizing the listings in a report released that day). The injurious species section of the Act (18 USC § 42)  is 111 years old and it is widely criticized as too slow and ponderous to be effective, but the Service does occasionally list dangerous non-native species under the Act. After five years of study, preparation and analysis, the agency is finally on the verge of prohibiting these snakes from private importation and interstate commerce. There are some upset constrictor snake breeders out there who appear blind to the public interest, focused on preserving their apparently lucrative businesses.

The regulatory process started in 2006 with a petition from the South Florida Water Management District due to the notorious ongoing invasion of Burmese pythons in South Florida, which have severely disrupted ecological foodchains in the Everglades National Park and surrounding areas and have preyed on ESA-listed species, such as the wood stork and the Key Largo woodrat, along with dozens of other prey animals. The rulemaking has included a 300-page scientific study by snake experts and a major economic impact study, as well as a lengthy public comment period, strong support from the scientific community and many months of review by OMB. The OMB phase included several personal meetings with the breeding and pet industry opponents and our coalition also met with OMB staff to support the rule.

All the major conservation and humane organizations strongly back the proposed regulation. Why? In a nutshell: 1) extensive past ecological damage these snakes have caused where they have been released by uncaring owners and invaded as a dominant “invasive species”; 2) the numerous human deaths they have inflicted with at least 12 people strangled or crushed, including several children, according to press accounts in the last three decades, and likely many more deaths that did not get into the press (no wonder their owners regularly release them to the wild!); 3) the inhumane conditions these huge animals - up to 16 feet long - suffer as they are generally crammed into too-small cages; and 4) the potential for more invasions and deaths if they continue to be sold unrestricted across the country, as is the case now with only a few state law exceptions.

The federal rule would prohibit imports and interstate trade of only nine species. There are literally hundreds of safer alternative species of snakes and other reptiles that breeders could breed and sell besides these few dangerous constrictors. But, like the hyped-up “investors” in chinchillas, emus and super-trendy dog breeds, some snake breeders have convinced gullible buyers that rare pythons and other snakes with special colors or marking patterns are worth tens of thousands of dollars. While these breeders cringe at facing loss of this high-profit trade segment, the high value is not due to these snakes making good pets; it is their value as “status luxury goods,” like Louis Vuitton handbags.

Upon finding out about Mr. Issa’s sneak attack hearing, the NECIS coalition, as well as many Florida wildlife groups, jumped into action to help set the record straight on snake breeder Barker’s testimony trashing the Service’s proposal. Skeptical questions rained down on Barker from the Ranking Member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), who were clearly in disbelief that blocking regulation of killer snakes was a central part of the Chairman’s anti-regulatory, pro jobs agenda. In the end it was doubtful Mr. Barker’s appearance helped his cause (or Mr. Issa’s), but these days in Washington anti-regulation stakeholders’ forces don’t quit, they just go look for other favorable forums.

Meanwhile, NECIS is nervously waiting for the final rule to come out and trying to meet with the Service’s Director to push the issue forward. The rule has stalled and needs unsticking.

Peter T. Jenkins, Executive Director, Center for Invasive Species Prevention.