Bill Tries to Curtail Invasive Species

Posted April 24, 2009 at 6:07pm

Burmese pythons, federal legislation and your pet goldfish? Oh my!

Recently introduced legislation that would update the process for banning the importation of certain invasive animals such as Burmese pythons and snakehead fish has sparked an uproar among the pet and exotic animal industries, bringing new faces to the halls of Congress and a battle over the legislation’s intent.

The bill’s critics, from snake breeders and reptile keepers to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, argue the bill would do everything from putting small-business owners out of work to taking away people’s household pets.

Currently, animal imports are regulated under the Lacey Act, a 100-year-old law that gives the Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to ban species from importation or interstate trade, but only after they are deemed to have caused serious and widespread harm in the United States.

The process of placing a species on the “injurious list— can take up to four years, though, and often comes only after the damage to the economy and the environment has already occurred.

The new bill, H.R. 669, would direct the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a risk assessment process to screen non-native animals before they are imported to the United States and establish a “white list— of non-native wildlife species approved for importation.

Critics worry that the broad language in the bill, the Nonnative Wildlife Prevention Act, would have a devastating impact on pet owners and the nation’s $43 billion pet industry by creating a screening process that could result in an unknown number of species being taken away from owners or banned from import or trade.

They have launched an aggressive grass-roots campaign, sending releases and e-mail alerts and creating blogs and Web sites to warn people that their pets could be taken away.

A press release by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a Washington-based organization that is largely leading the campaign, noted in bold that, “Anyone owning pet fish, birds, reptiles, amphibian, small mammals, or invertebrates could be affected by this bill.—

Opposition to the bill, sponsored by Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), reached a crescendo last week, resulting in more than 50,000 letters sent to members of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, which held a hearing on the issue on Thursday.

“To be able to deliver 50,000 letters in 10 days is unbelievable,— said Tom Wolfe, a political consultant hired in March by the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. “People are worried about the impact this would have on their pets and businesses.—

Supporters of the bill, however, point to high-profile cases such as the spread of the Burmese python in South Florida and the introduction of the snakehead fish from China into the Potomac River as examples of the system’s faults.

“The Lacey Act, in most cases, only comes after the fact,— said Peter Jenkins, director of international conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. “If we’d had [the proposed law] in place 20 years ago, we would have prevented several harmful invasions and disease outbreaks.—

Environmental organizations, from the Union of Concerned Scientists to Jenkins’ organization, Defenders of Wildlife, flooded Thursday’s hearing with green stickers proclaiming “Protect People, Protect Wildlife, Yes on H.R. 669.— They sought to clear the air over what they say is a disinformation campaign by exotic breeders and the pet industry.

“It is a very misleading campaign that has been run,— Jenkins said. “It’s a group of exporters and breeders who want to bring in their rare animals and are trying to scare all pet owners to think that pets are going to be banned under this law.—

Expert witnesses at the hearing underwent pointed questioning from subcommittee members to verify that the bill does, in fact, exempt domesticated animals such as cats dogs, rabbits, goldfish and horses from the evaluation process, and that it gives the Fish and Wildlife Service flexibility to add other animals as needed.

The bill’s critics said they remain concerned about the bill and will maintain pressure on Members as the bill moves through the legislative process.

“We plan to be at the table as much and as often as there are discussions,— said Wolfe, the lobbyist representing reptile breeders. “Our industry’s livelihood is at stake.—