A proposed new law, House Resolution #669 (HR 669), The Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act, is working its way through the United States Congress. This resolution was introduced by Delegate Madeleine Bordallo [D, Guam] on 26 January 2009, was referred to Referred to the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife on 4 February 2009 and is scheduled to be heard by the House of Representatives on 23 April 2009. The stated purpose of this resolution is to prevent the keeping and the propagation of animals that are not native to the United States that are deemed to potentially be capable of harming the economy or the environment, people, native species or their habitats [free PDF].
On the surface, HR 669 looks like a much-needed environmentally-friendly bill as touted by the Nature Conservancy, an organization I’ve been a member of for most of my life. HR 669, if enacted into law, proposes to prevent or to potentially undo at least some of the environmental and economic damage caused by invasive non-native bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, fish and invertebrate species. It will do this by preventing these animals from being bred as well as preventing them from being sold, re-homed or relocated across either state or national boundaries for any reason. Even though there is a “Grandfather Clause” that would allow those of us who already hold any potentially damaging animals to keep them [see Section 3f], we still would not be allowed to re-home, sell or breed them nor would we be allowed to move them across either state or national boundaries for any reason [see Section 6].
Even though I strongly support the removal of all free-roaming non-native exotic species by whatever (humane) means possible, I think HR 669 is both grossly misguided and poorly thought out. Here’s why;
- First, HR 669 starts out by automatically exempting many of the most damaging and invasive exotic animals;
The exceptions: cat (Felis catus), cattle or oxen (Bos taurus), chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus), dog (Canis lupus familiaris), donkey or ass (Equus asinus), domesticated members of the family Anatidae (geese), duck (domesticated Anas spp.), goat (Capra aegagrus hircus), goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus), horse (Equus caballus), llama (Lama glama), mule or hinny (Equus caballus x E. asinus), pig or hog (Sus scrofa domestica), domesticated varieties of rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), or sheep (Ovis aries), or any other species or variety of species that is determined by the Secretary to be common and clearly domesticated. [HR 669, Section 14.5(D)]
Nowhere in HR 669 is there a formal definition of what constitutes “common and clearly domesticated,” which leaves this phrase and its enforcement open to litigation, political pressures and interpretations based on restrictive agendas.
- Species can be added to either the Banned or Approved lists based upon a vague and poorly-defined risk assessment process. Unless a particular species is included on the Approved List, it would be prohibited to import, export, transport across state or national boundaries, or breed that species in this country. This would be devastating to captive breeding programs for endangered species! Further, HR 669 listing criteria mandates proving a negative — that a particular species poses no potential risk of causing harm anywhere within the United States. But it is notoriously difficult to “prove” that a particular species is not invasive, and studies designed to answer this question have been incorrect (perhaps the most famous example is the Cane Toad, Bufo marinus, that is invading Australia after being deliberately introduced as a form of biocontrol. Instead of controlling its intended target, the sugarcane beetle, Dermolepida albohirtum, these large toads instead began eating all the small native wildlife, ranging from insects to small mammals, birds and snakes. Worse, it was discovered — alas, too late! — that Cane Toads are poisonous, so large predatory animals that try to eat them also die. Woops!)
- HR 669 calls for the establishment of a user fee system for funding assessments following their addition to the “Preliminary Approved List.” However, there is no mandate that these user fees are reasonable and affordable. As a result, these user fees can be made so cost prohibitive that they eliminate everyone, or nearly everyone, from participating in the process, which can result in a few tax-exempt organizations or wealthy individuals using the law to force unnecessarily restrictive agendas on the public. Oddly, these user fees are not made available to the USFWS until 36 months into the process, which makes me wonder how would the USFWS fund the first three years of work without the required user fees?
- According to HR 669, permits authorizing only “importation” may be issued to “zoos, scientific research, medical, accredited zoological or aquarium display purposes, or for educational purposes that are specifically reviewed, approved, and verified by the Secretary”. However, there is no requirement anywhere in HR 669 that any import permits ever are granted to anyone. Furthermore, these institutions still cannot breed, sell or otherwise transfer ownership, nor relocate their animals across either state or national boundaries once they’ve been imported. Even if the required permits are granted, where will any of these approved organizations obtain their animals? Critical habitat for nearly all wild species is declining worldwide, so many animals are becoming threatened or endangered in the wild and thus, they cannot be imported into the US in accordance with CITES laws anyway.
- There are literally tens of thousands of species of non-native birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates that are kept and bred in the United States (for example, there are more than 2,500 species of non-native freshwater and marine fish species in the aquarium trade alone). Quite simply, USFWS inspectors lack the necessary training to accurately and knowledgeably identify the majority of native and non-native genera and species, and any potential or existing hybrids, nor would they be likely to know which species are native to specific regions of the United States; and further, these inspectors would be unlikely to be able to accurately identify and distinguish all those thousands of species, cryptic species and hybrids that are not native to the United States.
- HR 669 unrealistically requires the USFWS to complete risk assessments for all nonnative species in the Untied States within 37 months of passage. Since it takes an average of 4 years for USFWS to determine whether a species is harmful under the Lacey Act, it is not clear how they will be able to conduct the required risk assessment outlined in HR 669 within the prescribed time frame, particularly considering their historical lack of staff and funding.
- HR 669 could also result in particular species being listed as illegal in all states when in fact, they possess the potential to become established in just one or two specific states or regions. One such example are “my” research parrots that I study scientifically as well as breeding and keeping as pets; the lories (Loriinae). Lories are illegal in Hawaii because, as tropical nectarivorous/frugivorous parrots, they have the potential to become established there. However, lories lack this capability in the continental United States, yet under HR 669, this entire subfamily of parrots would be illegal. HR 669 conveniently ignores the fact that most states already have their own prohibited species lists that they enforce.
- If enacted, HR 669 would be unnecessarily punitive to pet owners and hobbyists. As written, HR 669 will not allow hobbyists and pet owners to bring any non-approved pets with them if they move to another state or country, nor will they be allowed to give away or sell their non-approved pet species to anyone else who can care for them. Thus, if a hobbyist or pet owner moves, dies or cannot continue keeping their pet for whatever reason, the only outcome for those animals is euthanization.
- HR 669 will seriously damage the pet industry, which relies selling both animals and the supplies necessary to keep those animals healthy. It is estimated that in 2008, there were 14 million American households with exotic freshwater fish, 6-7 million with exotic birds, 6 million with small exotic mammals, 5 million with exotic reptiles, and more than 1 million with marine fish. The loss of profits and other economic damages would not only include pet stores, but would also extend to specialty veterinarians, feed stores, pet boutiques, pet care providers and consultants who specialize in caring for exotics.
- HR 669 does not address the very real problem of invasive species that are already established and thriving throughout the United States, such as feral populations of domestic cats and dogs roaming freely through our cities and suburbs and the feral pigs that are digging up Hawaii — all of which have all been scientifically documented as extremely damaging to native species and their habitats.
- HR 669 inexplicably ignores the tremendous economic, environmental, and habitat damage caused by invasive exotic plant species, many of which are commonly cultivated as “ornamental plants,” but which are invasive in addition to being either noxious or toxic.
In principle, I agree with what HR 669 is attempting to do. It seeks to prevent or limit already existing damages caused by invasive exotic species and to establish a process that would prohibit possession of those species that are likely to become pests if they escape. However, as written HR 669 would have unintended consequences that are damaging to those who work with animals for a living, including but not limited to the pet industry, veterinarians, biomedical research, entertainment, agriculture, aquaculture, sports fishing, federal and state hatcheries and hunting. Of course, this situation effectively sets up the USFWS for failure and numerous lawsuits by legitimate environmental organizations as well as by animal rights activists and their fellow wingnuts.
It is essential that this country adopts a scientifically-based approach to preventing further environmental damages from escaped exotic species. But it takes time and money for the government to scientifically study any species and to make an accurate assessment of its potential for invasiveness or harm. Considering the chronically dismal state of funding for basic scientific research, especially research into the natural history of non-native animal species, it is unlikely that most exotic species that are kept and bred in this country will be included on the approved list anytime soon.
In short, while it is important for the United States to address the very real issue of damages resulting from exotic species and to take steps to prevent yet more invasive exotic species from becoming established in this country, HR 669 is not the bill that will produce these desired results. If environmental and conservation organizations are serious about crafting workable and reasonable legislation regarding this complex issue, they would create a collaborative relationship with the very people who are in “the animal industry”; ranchers and farmers, scientists, veterinarians, specialty breeders, consultants and hobbyists, pet owners and others whose lives will be negatively impacted by enacting these laws.
HR 669 Links:
Video discussing some of the impacts HR 669 will have on exotic animal breeders, pet store owners and scientists.
Brief Factsheet (printable) regarding HR 669 and its impacts.