The Questionable Authority

GrrlScientist and I are typically on the same side of issues, but this time that’s not the case. She is very concerned about some of the implications of a bill that’s currently making its way through the House of Representatives, and I think that the same bill is a good one that deserves to pass. The bill in question – House Resolution 669 – is intended to help keep new invasive species from becoming established in the United States.

After reading Grrl’s post, I don’t think that our disagreement stems from any difference of opinion about the science that’s involved. I’m reasonably sure that both of us have the same basic understanding of the potential dangers involved with invasive species, and that we both understand quite a bit about the enormous difficulties that are going to be involved in any attempt to keep new invasives out. Our disagreement is largely caused by our different backgrounds and priorities.

The way I approach anything that has to do with invasive species is heavily influenced by the six years that I spent learning the basics of zoology and ecology in Hawaii. As you may know, invasives have done enormous damage to the entire Hawaiian ecosystem, and new invasive species continue to arrive and create new harm there with painful regularity. GrrlScientist’s approach to this bill is heavily influenced by her involvement with exotic birds. She doesn’t just care for her birds, she cares passionately about them.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not a feeling that I share, but that’s because birds simply aren’t my thing. I’ve never owned one, or really wanted to (as far as I can recall, anyway). Cats and dogs are the pets for me, and they’re specifically excluded from this legislation (more on that later). There’s no way that I’m going to weight the concerns of bird owners as heavily as Grrl does – but that’s not to say that she’s wrong.

This bill is a good example of something that I’ve tried to say a couple of times when we’ve discussed the whole “restoring science to it’s rightful place” thing: understanding the science involved doesn’t necessarily mandate a particular course of action. If Grrl and I disagree to any substantive degree about the harm that invasives can do to the ecology and economy of the United States, I’d be absolutely stunned. That doesn’t mean that I’m at all surprised that we disagree about this particular bill and the approach that it takes in addressing that potential harm.

In the rest of this post, I’ll give you a quick overview of the major features of the bill, and explain why I think it’s a pretty good piece of legislation, on the whole. I’ll also take a look at a couple of Grrl’s objections to the bill. Before you reach any conclusion of your own, you should at a minimum read her post in full, and try to find answers to any questions you might have.

What the bill is intended to do:

The Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention act is intended (as the title suggests) to make it more difficult for new invasive species to reach America and become established here. The bill does not seem to be intended to do much to deal with species that are already well established in the US.

Who wrote the bill:

The bill was written by Delagate Bordallo of Guam (Guam, like the District of Columbia and other US territories, has a non-voting delegate in the House). Invasive species are a particularly large concern in Guam, as they also are in Hawaii and on other Pacific islands.

How the law (if passed) would work:

The law would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to do a number of things.

First, they would have two years to put together a preliminary list of species that would be approved for importation into the US. They would be required to seek public input into the list, beginning no later than 2 months after passage of the law. The final version of the list will also be required to go through a full public comment process.

Second, they would have to put together and publish a set of procedures for assessing the risk that a new species would pose to the environment.

Third, they would have about three years from the date of passage to put together a list of species that are definitely banned from importation.

Finally, they will be required to use the risk assessment process that they develop to respond to requests to add species to either list. They will also need to develop a fee system and scientific permitting process to deal with cases where a banned species needs to be brought in.

Why I think this is a good idea:

The bill defines “importation” of species into the US very broadly:

IMPORT.–The term ”import” means to land on, bring into, or introduce into, or attempt to land on, bring into, or introduce into, any place subject to the jurisdiction of the Government of the United States, whether or not such landing, bringing into, or introduction constitutes an importation within the meaning of the customs laws of the Government of the United States.

This is very good, because it seems to provide a means for the US to create an incentive for people (and particularly for shipping firms) to take measures to keep from accidentally bringing new kinds of critters into the country. The way this bill seems to be written, a ship that drops off a new invasive species in its ballast water would be considered to have imported that species, and could be held liable. So could, for example, an airline that brings new insects or snakes into an area along with the baggage.

That’s key, because most of the invasives that get here come by accident. Right now, little is done to prevent this in part because the shippers have little reason to do anything. Potential liabilities could change that.

The bill is also a good idea because it places evaluation of the harm that a species could cause in the hands of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is probably the best equipped to assess not only the potential harm to agriculture, but also the potential overall ecological harm.

Why GrrlScientist thinks the bill is dangerously misguided:

Read her post for the specifics. She speaks for herself far better than I ever could.

Basically, though, her primary objection seems to boil down to this: the bill specifically exempts only the most common species of domesticated animals. Bird, fish, lizard, and other exotic animal owners do not enjoy the same benefits as cat and dog owners. This creates a situation where they could potentially find their pets outlawed. They would be allowed to keep the animals in question, but could not sell them, give them away, breed them, or move them to another state.

The logistics of the bill and the burdens already faced by FWS will make it difficult, if not impossible, for all of the species to be evaluated in the preliminary process, while the unspecified fees that will be charged to evaluate species after that point might make it all-but-impossible for pet owners to have the species they are concerned with evaluated. At the same time, a lack of training will make it difficult for inspectors to be able to figure out if the species that someone is trying to bring in is actually allowed.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. #1 DrA
    April 15, 2009

    You can imagine how us botanists feel as we battle kudzu and other Asian plant species that are taking over. No provision for plants at all. Pretty narrow definition of wildlife showing a common bias for animals.

  2. #2 GrrlScientist
    April 15, 2009

    one of my many objections to HR 669 is the inconsistency of this bill because it completely ignores non-native plants that are at least as damaging than non-native animal species, and some of my sources who work in the gardening industry claim they are MORE damaging. i am still getting more sources and data regarding specific points i raise about this bill, so please do feel free to email them to me. as a scientist, i am very partial to peer-reviewed papers.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    April 15, 2009

    It feels like you’re talking past Grrl. I think the problem with the bill is not what it aims to do, but what could be done with it. The provisions are so general: any animal on the banned list can’t be bred or even moved between states. And the grounds for assessment are vague, so it would be easy to slip lories (for example) in there. It would even be possible to ban species throughout the whole USA because they are a threat to Hawaii (and nowhere else).

    Are you aware that this bill could also put a stop to Prof. Steve Steve’s travels? Although that might not be a bad thing, with the Prof’s history of assisting Australians to release marsupials into Hawaii.

  4. #4 rnb
    April 15, 2009

    Good idea turned into bad law.

  5. #5 Mike Dunford
    April 15, 2009

    @DrA & Grrl:
    I know that invasive plants are at least as damaging as animals, but I’m not sure it makes sense to deal with both issues in the same bill. For starters, FWS might not be as well suited to evaluating and addressing plant issues as the Forestry folks or the Agriculture Department.

    In any case, I don’t think the failure to address plants is a compelling reason not to pass this bill. Making it harder for new animal species to get in will help things whether or not plants are addressed at the same time.

    @Grrl & Bob:
    I don’t think the requirements for banning an animal are overly vague. Placing an animal on the list requires showing that the animal could cause environmental or economic harm, or pose a risk to plant and animal health. I’m not sure what a more specific set of criteria would look like.

    I also think that the proposal for establishing the preliminary permitted list is reasonable. According to the bill, fees won’t be charged for proposals for preliminary list inclusion. I think that we’re much more likely to get a reasonable list of allowable exotics by having FWS professionals set it up than we would if an extensive list was included in the bill.

    I would have been slightly happier if the limited “must allow” list wasn’t at the end of the bill, but I don’t see anything on that list that’s objectionable. Yes, cats and dogs are harmful invasives, but they’re so well-established here that there’s no way that banning imports would accomplish anything. (That’s one of the criteria for inclusion on the permitted list anyway – so well established that an import ban would be pointless.)

  6. #6 GrrlScientist
    April 15, 2009

    Another point to consider: Delagate Bordallo of Guam did NOT write this resolution. instead, as is typical, she SPONSORED this resolution that had already been written by an organization, in this case, it was “In Defense of Animals” (IDA) who wrote it. IDA has, as one of their primary stated goals, completely rejects keeping birds in captivity for any reason, whether it be for endangered species propagation, for research purposes or as companion pets. sound familiar?

  7. #7 Bob O'H
    April 15, 2009

    Mike, why should a bill to stop the import of animals stop them being bred or transported across states? What’s that got to do with importing? This is what’s so vague – it’s not clear what should happen with species that are already captive-bred.

    Oh, actually it is clear – if they’re not on the approve list, it’s equivalent to them being banned. So, even if nobody has any intention of importing lories, if Grrl tries to breed hers, or move them to another state, she can be breaking the law, simply because nobody assessed the species.

    Are you also aware that if a species isn’t on the approved list, it can’t even be captive bred for conservation purposes? For science, yes. For letting people gawk at it in a zoo, yes (if a permit is given), but not to save the thing from extinction. The principles are great, but it’s just not been thought through.

  8. #8 Mike Dunford
    April 15, 2009

    @Grrl:
    Do you have a reference for the IDA involvement? The bill doesn’t seem to be listed at all on their website.

    In any case, while they want to ban all birds, this bill doesn’t get them there on its own. They would have to get them included on the banned list on the merits, which I think is highly doubtful given the wording of the bill.

    @Bob:
    My assumption would be that captive breeding would fall into either scientific or zoological display categories. If a group like the Wildlife Conservation Society starts expressing concern over the impact that those provisions could have on the bill, I’d certainly have to rethink my position.

    As far as the issue of getting animals onto the list goes, here’s how I see it: any attempt to keep invasives out is going to require lists of acceptable and unacceptable species to be drawn up. This bill gives the FWS two years to draw up a list, and requires transparency and public comment. I think that’s vastly preferable to having Congress draw up the list over the course of a couple of weeks – particularly since their work is rarely transparent.

    It’s also worth noting that the same section that specifically exempts cats, dogs, etc also gives the Secretary of the Interior the power to exempt any other animal that’s “common and clearly domesticated”.

  9. #9 Kris S-K
    April 16, 2009

    Just came across both blogs (Grrl and Mike)- I love that a level, well thought out and non-confrontational discussion is being had – very refreshing. I do support this bill and feel that the precautionary approach is long overdue. I think it is well-written and that many of the credible issues in opposition can be addressed through minor revisions to this bill. For example, reputable captive breeding programs should not be affected, this is really already captured in the scientific exclusion. I also agree that it would be ridiculous to have somebody show a receipt as document of proof, and that there could be additional measures established to determine ownership.

    As to including invasive, non-native plants, this is being currently addressed through USDA rulemaking on Quarantine 37 Plant Import Regulations. See this link for a letter to USDA from UCS http://www.ucsusa.org/invasive_species/solutions/usda-aphis-quarantine-37.html

  10. #10 Natalie
    April 16, 2009

    IDA had noting to do with this bill. Its laughable that Grrl is so paranoid and so poorly researched the issue that she believes this. Her credibility has been shot.

    The bill was crafted in large part as the result of the work of National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species http://www.necis.net/ and as a result of the Defenders of Wildlife report “Broken Screens”http://www.defenders.org/programs_and_policy/international_conservation/u.s._imports_of_live_animals/broken_screens.php

    Environmental groups are the primary proponents of this bill. Animal protection groups who support the bill also include the well respected Born Free USA and Humane Society of the United States, which have made sure that the bill does not cause harm to individual animals who may eventually be put on the “unapproved” list.

  11. #11 Jim Thomerson
    April 16, 2009

    I think it is a draconian nightmare. The first mistake is talking about a list of approved introductions, rather than a list of banned introductions. Problem is that new things to introduce are being found daily. If you have a banned list, you can say hold up on that one which is similar to a banned one. The way the bill appears to me is that it will turn a lot of fairly harmless hobbists into angry criminals. I’m not up on Fish and Wildlive expertise on introductions, but there is considerable expertise in the USGS. If the bill does not have strong requirement for interagency partnership and cooperation, I would be very uneasy.

    As a side comment, my uncle was a federal predator control agent on the Texas-Mexico border for many years. He said feral domestic dog packs were the most difficult predators to control.

  12. #12 Bob O'H
    April 17, 2009

    My assumption would be that captive breeding would fall into either scientific or zoological display categories.

    I would be sceptical about that – a lot of captive breeding won’t give us any new scientific knowledge, and why would one have to display animals in a captive breeding programme?

    And even if captive breeding fell under these categories, it would still be illegal. Permits can only be given for importation, not breeding.

  13. #13 Raymond
    April 17, 2009

    Well as long as it doesnt effect harmless animals like leopard geckos or syrian hampsters It doesnt matter to me. Though this does raise questions to me. I mean if there animals that could pose a threat to humans then by all means. But if there small little fragile animals then no 10x If the animal isnt harmful it shouldnt be banned.

  14. #14 David Gaines
    April 18, 2009

    If I may provide a perspective that has been lacking until now in these types of discussions….

    I’m the director of the legislative affairs committee of the American Ferret Association (which, by the way, is a volunteer position/labor of love, as are all AFA positions). In ten years of advocacy/rescue work on behalf of the domestic ferret, which is arguably the most misunderstood companion animal in the United States, I have never seen as much reaction to a piece of legislation on the part of ferret owners as I have to H.R. 669, all of it profoundly negative.

    The AFA takes no position on this bill in general although we recognize that it is well-intentioned and attempts to address a serious problem. However, what our membership is furious over is the exemption list contained within section 14(5)(D) of the bill, which specifically excludes cats, dogs, rabbits, and goldfish, and that’s it. Ferrets, hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs – which are all obviously, clearly, and undeniably well-established, domesticated companion animals and NOT wildlife – are left out. Why were they left out? We do not know, but we are trying to discover the answer to that question.

    The ferret community is uniquely sensitive to this because of the enormous legal battles it has had to fight to get ferrets legalized throughout the country over the last twenty years. The suitability of ferrets as pets is so well-established, with such an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting it, that it has ceased to be an issue in most of the country (Hawai’i, which is rabies-free and wants to remain that way, is in a unique position vis a vis forbidding the entry of ferrets).

    Even the Humane Society of the United States, a principal supporter of HR 669, officially acknowledges the suitability of the ferret as a household pet, and therefore has agreed, at our request, to ask that _mustela putorius furo_ be added to the exemption list in section 14(5)(D) of HR 669. Note that _mustela nigripes_, the wild and severely endangered black-footed ferret, is a completely different animal and is, of course, not included in this request.

    I hope this clarifies the nature of at least some of the opposition to the bill as it currently stands. AFA will be releasing a position statement on HR 669 and our efforts are focused on seeing that the Humane Society’s request is carried through so that the ferret, which is, to use the language of the bill, “common and clearly domesticated,” is labeled as such along with cats, dogs, rabbits, and goldfish and will not have to go through any determination by the Secretary of the Interior or risk assessment process.

    I encourage all of you, especially those in the scientific community, to support this reasonable effort on behalf of the AFA and the HSUS to amend the bill to exempt ferrets, and thus defuse at least some of the opposition to it.

    David Gaines
    Director, Legal & Legislative Affairs
    American Ferret Association
    http://www.ferret.org

  15. #15 Jennifer
    April 20, 2009

    I think people can try to make a point about whether plants should be involved or if their favorite should be excluded. What everyone seems to miss here is big government overstepping their bounds. Of course we need to make every effort to stop these invasions, both plant and animal. Of course people can see the damage that comes from irresponsibility. I don’t think too many will argue with those points.
    Regardless, the idea of a bill, being passed, without already listing these things? A bill that limits those who already have them from relocating, or oops…procreating? I know that it says “knowingly”, but I have free range guineas; if there are deemed prohibited and I don’t keep them separated, am I not “knowingly” breeding them? It is just scary that we seem to be losing the forest for the trees. I am all for protecting the envionment, but not with blanket bills. We can do better than this. We can think better than Washington.
    I am just a common person living in America. I believe in the Constitution, but it is being overlooked yet again. Please see the bigger picture, regardless of which side of the fence you are on.

  16. #16 concolor1
    April 23, 2009

    I happened on this site after I went Googling because a couple of modest little herp hobbyists’ places I frequent were being stirred into a feeding frenzy by opponents of HR 669. I’m not a scientist, but I’ve kept tropical fish for nearly 50 years (all of them descended from non-native stock) and reptiles off-and-on for nearly that long, although not as regularly. BTW, only two of my snakes, Central American milk snakes, are “non-natives,” since they’re a slightly different subspecies than the variety found throughout much of the United States. But if someone likes pythons, that’s fine, and I don’t advocate capital punishment for whomever released the Burmese and reticulated varieties in the Everglades, although life imprisonment or possibly castration do merit consideration . . .

    Do I need to explain to this audience that was a joke?

    I was also an early member of a conservation group here in Utah, now known as the Western Wildlife Conservancy, which seeks to enhance wildlife habitat via protection of predator populations and public education on balanced ecosystems. This despite being a hunter and fisherman since I was old enough to obtain a license. On the non-native front, I loathe the presence of carp in local waterways but German brown trout–and their Scottish kinfolk–set my angling arm to twitching . . .

    What I found so troubling about the “anti HR 669″ campaign were the tactics used; I’ve seen similar campaigns used by special interests to mask their own involvement, and inevitably, truth is among the first casualties.

    I do not know whether HR 669 is a “good bill” or a “bad bill,” and I’ve read it, thoroughly, and I possess a degree in English and grad level education in several fields. I suggest, though, this question is irrelevant at this point; many years ago I majored in political science, and still it wasn’t until near the end of the last century I heard the word “policy,” and without an understanding of that concept, debate on this matter is pointless. Laws are made by legislative bodies, but it is policy makers who determine how they are implemented. And generally, those folks are reasonable, educated, and committed, much to the dismay of the fear mongers.

    Unfortunately, it’s terms like this last one that tend to raise tempers; I’m unrepentant since I’ve never changed my mind on a subject without a good tantrum beforehand, and I’m going to grant people the dignity of their own processes. I have learned a bit of discretion, however; I didn’t bother those forums with what I considered thoroughly appropriate one-liners (“Non-native species, eh? I wonder if human beings are going to be at the top of the list? We’ve certainly caused enough damage!”); I will put them here, however, in the form of a plea for those who are passionate on this matter to educate themselves on issues such as basic science, politics and policy (be prepared to be really angry over what the last administration did in this area), and the reasons why someone might propose such a bill.

    The fact is non-native species are an ecological horror story, and there are also equally gruesome tales involving the pet industry decimating wild populations of birds, tropical fish (particularly cyanide used in harvesting marine varieties), and reptiles. And this is a worldwide problem . . .

    Something does need to be done, and if people persist in scaring others to death to effect their own agendas, well, those sorts are legitimate fodder for my cannons.

    Please, folks, do your homework on this one . . .

  17. #17 jan
    April 23, 2009

    Here in California, the CDFA propped from behind by USDA, 2 govt. agencies, act as a corporate arm, enabled by the Invasive Species Council, an excuse, TO SPREAD PESTICIDES ALL OVER CALIFORNIA. Court orders are given and Sheriffs arrive at your gate, open it, and CDFA sprays everywhere, without examining for anything. hard to believe, isn’t it folks? So, what are you going to do about invasive species – poison them all? – industrial ag and industrial chem are gonna’ love you. Did you know one of the stated and codified goals of NAFTA is “grow the market for pesticides.”

  18. #18 concolor1
    April 23, 2009

    And per my analysis about “feeding frenzies,” I note that what “Jan” says above has nearly zilch–repeat zilch–to do with the stated aims of HR 669.

    Can we stop scaring the people with blanket generalizations? I promise it’ll go a long way towards identifying the real problems in need of solutions. Black-and-white thinking is the antithesis of reason . . .

    For example, on the California pesticide front (and California has used pesticides for generations; some have been toxic and particularly problematic; many have made the standard of living we enjoy today possible), the light brown apple moth is a threat to the state’s apple crops . . .

    But it couldn’t be that the reason a certain crowd of Californians don’t want the intrusions is because of what they’re growing in their “herb” gardens, now could it?

    Naw, of course not . . . Dang, there I go with another one-liner; shouldn’t be carrying a loaded gun around, I suppose . . .

    Meanwhile, in Chile (where the green grapes in the supermarket down the street from me are grown), there’s concern that pesticides aren’t being used enough (which is where the fear of foreign bugs is relevant. Additionally, under utilization of pesticides can cause insects to develop immunity more rapidly, much as failure to take a full course of antibiotics creates more resistant bacteria because the survivors leave more descendants).

    Here are the EPA stated goals on pesticides/NAFTA . . .

    http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/international/naftatwg/

    The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Technical Working Group (TWG) on Pesticides is a collaboration among the pesticides regulatory government agencies of the United States (EPA Office of Pesticides Programs), Canada and Mexico.  The primary objective is to develop easier and less expensive pesticide regulation and trade among the three countries and meet the environmental, ecological, and human health objectives of NAFTA.

    EPA/OPP and its NAFTA partners have completed more than 19 projects since 1998.  These projects have improved food safety, risk reduction, and trade of agricultural commodities: enabled successful collaboration on reviewing scientific studies and coordinated registration decisions of new pesticides and uses; and, improved processes for exchanging information between industry and the three regulatory agencies.

    Now if you want to throw tomatoes (organic or otherwise) at the last administration and what took place in terms of junk science, replacing solid thinkers with compliant “yes man” types in the policy-making bureaucracies, and otherwise gutting and shifting government culture back to, say, around 1940, you can borrow my bushel baskets . . .

    But we held an election last fall, and boyhowdy, we tossed the bums out . . . Now let’s give the processes some time to work, and nowhere have I suggested California shouldn’t be permitted to address California problems . . . One of which is you folks seem overly fond of Republican movie stars . . .

    My call is for a higher standard of political action, that’s all. Otherwise, in Orwellian fashion, we’re likely to be fighting endless wars where last years’ enemy is selling us this year’s artillery shells . . .

    Fox News would love that, but some of us are cursed with long memories . . .

  19. #19 Natalie
    May 7, 2009

    David, as the “director of the legislative affairs committee” of the ferret group, I would think you would understand that in legislation you don’t typically take up space writing exhaustive lists of exemptions when such exemptions can be easily summed up with terms that make the intent obvious. The bill says that the Secretary should include “any other species or variety of species that is determined by the Secretary to be common and clearly domesticated.” Don’t you think hamsters fit that bill? Of course they do. If you are unsure about whether ferrets are domesticated, native or non-native, then you can make those arguments during the list making process, which is open to public input and review.

    Plus,it’s not like all animals are banned until the lists are done, they would only be prohibited if added to the prohibited list. True, some legislation has pages of lists to clarify the obvious, but to write an exhaustive list of all domesticated species in the United States and insert them into this bill would be silly. The only reason to do so is to satisfy equally silly opposition that has so little understanding of the legislative process and is unduly paranoid. So, I guess they will need to to this.

    In fairness I can understand why special interest groups want to clear their “special pets” and avoid evaluation especially if they think their critters pose a risk to native wildlife, but don’t assume its a bad bill because hamsters were not called out specifically.

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