The Questionable Authority

Over the last few days, there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act (HR 669). Some of that has occurred in the comments on my blog post on the subject, and quite a bit more over at GrrlScientist’s blog. So far, I haven’t seen anything that leads me to change my view that the bill is, on the whole, a good piece of legislation.

There are two main objections that I’ve seen that I’d like to specifically look at. The first is the possible impact that the bill would have on breeding species for conservation purposes. The second involves the potential impact that the bill might have on the owners of some pet species, and on the exotic pet industry.

HR 669 and Conservation Breeding:

In the comments section of my earlier post and on his own blog, Bob O’Hara raised the concern that the bill could severely impact conservation breeding. He points to two separate reasons that this could become a problem – the permitting language in the bill does not appear to permit breeding, and if a captive species is ruled to be a potentially harmful invasive, existing breeding programs could be forced to come to a halt.

I think that the permitting language is vague enough that it could stand some improvement. As of right now, a literal reading of the bill’s language would seem to say that permits can only be issued for the importation of a species, so breeding, transportation across state lines, and everything else banned by the bill would still be prohibited. IANL, but I think that it’s also possible to interpret to mean that you are only prohibited from doing those things if you are prohibited from importing the species, and that an import permit would therefore also permit breeding, etc.

In either case, though, I think that it might be good to see that language clarified in the legislation. An amendment, or a revision in the Senate, would seem to be indicated. Done well, it would strengthen the bill by quite a bit. Like Bob, though, I think that this is a problem that calls for a drive to amend the legislation, not an effort to kill it.

I’m much less concerned than Bob is by the possibility that the bill might force an end to some captive breeding programs. A species can only be placed on the banned list under this bill if two conditions apply: the species must have the potential to become established as an invasive in the United States and it must have the potential to cause economic and/or environmental damage if it becomes established. If we’re breeding species in captivity in the United States that fit both those criteria, it might be a very good idea to re-examine the wisdom of those programs.

HR 669 and the Pet Trade:

The most vocal opponents of 669 seem to be connected in some way to the exotic pet trade – whether as owners, advocates, or breeders and sellers. They are concerned primarily because cats, dogs, and goldfish are specifically protected by this legislation, but their pet species are not. Their concern is, for the most part, understandable. I’m more than willing to accuse corporations like PetSmart with being more concerned about their profit margin than anything else, but that simply doesn’t hold true for most of the individuals and groups that are registering concern. Most of the people who breed and care for exotic pets are not doing it for money. They do it because they have a genuine love for their pets.

Despite their concerns, I think that the mechanisms in this bill are both more fair and more likely to be effective than any other approach I can think of. Any effort to restrict the entry of potential invasives that is going to have any hope of making a lasting impact requires that each and every species be evaluated for potential harm before it is allowed to be imported. The two-list system proposed in the legislation is a simple and effective means of accomplishing that. When a species is proposed, it’s evaluated, and it’s placed either on a banned list, or an allowed list.

It would, of course, be possible for the legislation to be expanded to include more species. That might address the concerns of pet owners, but I don’t think it would be fair or reasonable. That’s a process that would simply favor whatever species have the most effective lobbyists, and it would place the determination of whether or not those species might be harmful in the hands of Congress. The process outlined in the bill, where the Fish and Wildlife Service makes those determinations over the course of months and with public input and comments is more likely to be effective, more transparent, and more fair.

As I’ve said before, I would have been happier if the legislation did not come with a small list of already permitted species. However, there is no doubt that every one of the species on that list falls into the Section 4(b)(1)(B) category – species that are harmful to the environment, but are already so widespread that any import prohibitions or restrictions would have no practical utility. Most of the pet species that bird, fish, and other breeding groups are concerned about probably fall into either that category, or the “not harmful/won’t become established in the wild” group.

A couple of people have pointed out that it will be hard to finish the preliminary list in the time that the bill allows. I certainly wouldn’t oppose giving the Fish and Wildlife Service another year or two, but I don’t think that’s as much of a problem as some folks think.

Keep in mind that, as I mentioned above, Section 4(b)(1)(B) of the bill says that species that may be harmful but are already so well established that import restrictions are useless “shall” be included on the preliminary list of allowed species. That’s not a determination that requires a full scientific examination of the potential harm that might be caused. All that’s required there is the knowledge that the species is already widespread. It’s also possible for species to be added to the “cats and dogs” section of the list. All that’s required there is a determination that the species is “common and clearly domesticated” (Section 14(5)(d)). That, too, is not something that will require a lot of time in many cases.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    April 20, 2009

    Wow, someone has read my post!

    I’m not sure how you read the bill as authorizing importation also authorizing the other activities that are banned. But I think we’re in agreement that it should be clarified. Actually, this lack of clarity is interesting, because most of the bill just talks about import, and it’s only the prohibitions and penalties section (sec. 6) that adds everything else on. It’s odd, and I wonder what caused that.

    On the captive breeding, captive breeding of potentially invasive species should, I think, be allowed if there are sufficient safeguards to stop them escaping. I think there will be plenty of species that are not safe to allow to be imported generally, but which can be contained safely by a qualified group. The bill has some allowance for this already.

    One worry for the pet people is that the species on the exemption list are always approved. But other species which are in the “already too widespread” category are only in that category when they are in the provisional list. Once the 3 years is over, anyone with the money can apply for a re-assessment and then the “already too widespread” clause doesn’t apply. This looks to me like another sign that bill is badly written: why should the criteria be different in the two cases?

    I agree that the three-list system is sensible (yes, there is a third item on the list: data deficient), but the details swirling around it make the bill difficult to accept, in its current form at least. I think they can all be sorted, though.

  2. #2 Mike Dunford
    April 20, 2009

    On the captive breeding, captive breeding of potentially invasive species should, I think, be allowed if there are sufficient safeguards to stop them escaping.

    That’s an area where I think an improved permitting process would be a good idea. Permits would be subject to more scrutiny, and could be revoked.

    One worry for the pet people is that the species on the exemption list are always approved. But other species which are in the “already too widespread” category are only in that category when they are in the provisional list. Once the 3 years is over, anyone with the money can apply for a re-assessment and then the “already too widespread” clause doesn’t apply.

    That’s actually not the case. Take a look at Sec. 3(a) of the bill. The directive is that procedures be developed for evaluating species other than those on the Section 4 list.

    The preliminary list is followed by a comment period and possible modifications during that period, but once that’s over with there’s no mechanism that I can see in the bill for forcing the re-evaluation of a species on the approved list.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    April 20, 2009

    The mechanism for re-evaluation is (almost) in sec. 4(a)3, 4(c)1 and 5(b)1. Also, sec. 5(b)1(A) says (emphasis mine):

    IN GENERAL- Any person may submit to the Secretary a proposal to add to the list under this section any nonnative wildlife species.

    So there is no restriction there to stop someone proposing a species already approved. Actually, this is another sign that the bill is poorly written. What it says is that someone can ask that an approved species be reassessed, but
    it doesn’t provide any mechanism for doing so!

    There has to be such a mechanism, I think, because knowledge will accumulate, and conditions can also change.

  4. #4 Dean
    April 20, 2009

    My hobby is marine aquariums. My sister has a Phd. in Wildlife conservation, and I have always practiced my hobby in a responsible manner. HR 669 would kill the hobby completely. Many of the species required to keep a healthy saltwater aquarium are simply not described, and so cannot be added to a species list. You may know its a polycheate worm, but can’t say which one. Same goes for the amphipods, copepods, and isopods which form the backbone of the ecosystem on which our home tanks depend. Many coral species cannot be identified unless they are dead and examined.

    This bill will absolutely ruin the saltwater hobby, and freshwater as well. It would never recover. That people like you talk about a species list shows how completely ignorant you are of the complexity of nature and species identification. Right now with the clownfish sub family, Amphiprioninae, there is a lot of discussion of whether there are 29 different species, or 5 different species, or 1 species and different breeds. Its not at all clear cut.

    It is a well intentioned law and badly written. End of story

  5. #5 Paul Zajicek
    April 21, 2009

    The subcommittee chaired by Rep. Bordallo is holding a hearing on HR 669 this Thursday, April 23rd, starting at 10:00 AM. The hearing should be available via a live webcast. Visit http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/.

  6. #6 Aaron
    April 21, 2009

    Giving the government the power to openly, and without any checks and balances, to say X species is on this list or that list is ridiculous. I don’t care whether it’s pets, or plants, or paper clips. There are already laws against releasing things into the wild. Make them more clear, known, and enforceable.

    Additionally, I think it’s very unlikely that Amphiprioninae (Nemo) is going to establish itself in Lake Erie. So an outright ban on them is kinda silly for those of us whose only saltwater is either in a tank or for gargling.

    And finally, this does not need to be a national issue. As a keeper and breeder of a very specific python species (Morelia Viridis, Green Tree Python from Indo), they are simply NOT capable of any long-term environmental impact. Winter will take care of that (plus, I love my pets and do everything I can to keep them from escaping into the wild… which so far, 0% of my animals are missing, and I’ve been doing this for 6 years, at times having over 50 pythons). So what precise benefit is it to prohibit me from owning this animal? I mean, unless you’re of the mindset that animals shouldn’t be captives generally speaking. Some people love dogs. Some people love fish. Some people love reptiles. It’s not a “right” per se, however whatever happened to “the pursuit of happiness”? My ownership and enjoyment of these animals is not affecting my neighbor, the environment, or anyone at all.

    Yes, there’s a huge industry at stake, and thousands of people that would be instantly unemployed if this were to go through. And this is the perfect economy to do that in. *sigh*

    I’m all for pet owner responsibility. And I mean, I’m ALL for it and doing my part to improve the well-being of our captives. I’ve built a reptile tracking and lineage and help site to better the hobby. I’m committed to US being responsible, and providing a conduit for people to take better care of their animals.

    Painting with this wide of a brush will have a significantly deleterious impact on our economy, and our country. These animals are not for everyone, but then again, cats aren’t for me (I’m highly allergic)… at the same token, although I’m not a cat person, I don’t think they should be banned. And they do a FAR greater damage to our ecosystem than any of the pets I keep. But they’re more popular.

    Don’t let popular opinion dictate freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.

  7. #7 Responsible Keeper
    April 21, 2009

    “I think that the permitting language is vague enough that it could stand some improvement. ”

    This is the understatement of the year. Being vauge is the single most important reason that this bill must be killed dead. No other reason is necessary. Unless things are spelled out with exactness, BEFOREHAND, people’s rights, desires and livelihoods are in danger. The very fact, that this very blog and most others have this back-and-forth chatter going on about specifics, means that the bill is open to interpretation and assumptions that may not work or be good for those involved.

    It is my belief that this bill is a front for animal rights activists who are trying to destroy the pet trade. If there was a real problem with invasive hamsters, or invasive angelfish or some other species that has been in this country for decades then there would be no problem naming such in the bill beforehand, in order to prevent pet owners and the pet industry from being upset. Why have such a secretive and vague bill if it is possible to do it differently? Because “powers that be” wish to take rights and privileges away from people without people realizing it– until it is too late to do anything about it.
    “Just trust us”, is the refrain. Where have I heard that before?
    I trust nothing that is not specific, and in writing, and neither should anyone that wants to continue to own, keep, and breed animals.

    Banning is never the solution to anything. Regulation, microchipping, and licensing would all go a LONG way to preventing invasive species. Most people want to be responsible if given the tools to do so. Why not try those things FIRST, and see if they work before taking a broad brush and punishing the innocent responsible breeders and keepers with the guilty ones?

  8. #8 Joe Mama
    April 22, 2009

    Another Marine Aquarium enthusiast here. Thousands of members of this hobby have formed regional groups throughout the country. They are holding meetings and establishing relationships with local colleges, aquariums, scientists and working with government organizations. Countless hobbyists have made contributions through scientific research, volunteer work, education, etc. This work has helped lead to discoveries which allow us to better understand marine life, which aids in conservation in the wild. Numerous other advancements in husbandry and breeding practices have come from the hobby which has benefited public aquariums and well as home aquariums. This all ultimately can assist marine conservation by providing shelter for species whose natural habitats are threatened.

    This alone is reason enough not to kill the hobby. And that doesn’t even take into account the various economic arguments. There is a reason the CEO of the New England Aquarium made a public statement against this bill.