Landmark Case Paves Way for Animals Like Pythons to Be Traded in U.S.

Constrictor snakes like yellow anacondas are listed as "injurious," meaning potentially harmful to the environment, and the federal government has restricted their interstate trade since 2012. Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

Big news for people who love huge snakes: A court has ruled that the federal government cannot legally prevent the interstate trade of large serpents like Burmese pythons, as well as many other animals that could pose a hazard to the environment. The ruling, by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, has broad implications for the pet trade, but also raises some scaly questions about regulating the flow of invasive species across state lines. Owners of exotic pets and small businesses that sell them cheered the April 7 decision, while environmental groups expressed concern.

Before we get to the snakes, a bit of background. The case concerns the Lacey Act, which gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to list species as "injurious"—that is, potentially harmful to the environment or humans—and to prevent their import. The agency has also interpreted the act as giving them to the authority to prevent the interstate trade of these species within the continental U.S. However, after the service listed several large constrictor snakes as injurious beginning in 2012 and set about restricting their trade, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers objected, arguing that the move amounted to federal overreach, and sued the agency in late 2013.

The case has slowly moved through the judicial system, and on April 7 the D.C. Circuit sided with the reptile keepers, after a lower court did the same. This new ruling makes it clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have congressional authority to prevent this kind of interstate trade.

Language-usage buffs, take note: This case was decided in large part on a matter of word choice. First written in 1900, the Lacey Act was amended in 1960 to constrain the shipment of injurious species such as invasive animals (like mongoose, a creature causing mayhem in Hawaii at the time by eating native birds and reptiles). The amendment stipulated that it would be illegal to ship such animals "between the continental United States...Hawaii, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, or any [other territory]."

The use of the word "between" is key. The reptile keepers argued that the language in the act gives the feds the authority to stop importation and trade only between the continental United States and Hawaii or other territories. It clearly does not give them authority to stop trade and shipment within the continental U.S., they argued, and the court agreed.

The court ruling doesn't impact the Lacey Act's strict ban on the import of "injurious" species, or trade between territories, which both stand. Only animals already found within the United States may be legally bought and sold. However, various states and cities have local laws that constrain this trade.

"This will have real-world implications for our ability to fight invasive species," says Collette Adkins, a senior attorney with the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. Adkins and Humane Society lawyer Anna Frostic argued the case alongside government consul Emily Polachek (who in addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service didn't respond to request for comment).

The service designated these snakes as injurious due to their potential to spread into the environment and cause harm. Large snakes like Burmese pythons have wreaked havoc in South Florida, decimating local fauna, and many worry that these animals could spread more widely throughout the southern U.S., and that interstate trade would increase chance for escape into the wild. However, Phil Goss, president of the reptile keepers group, says this isn't a valid concern, citing research that suggests most of these constrictor snakes can survive only in the limited areas of South Florida and southern Texas, where it's warm and wet enough to support them. He advocates for education and responsible pet-keeping, which he believes can prevent significant releases into the environment.

"I'm ecstatic about [the ruling]," says Ben Renick of Renick Reptiles, a Missouri outfit that sells large snakes like reticulated pythons and green anacondas. These are two of the eight species of serpents listed as harmful by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and because of this designation, these snakes have been broadly illegal to ship across state lines for the past few years. Renick says when these two species were added to the list in March 2015, he halved the number of snakes he was producing, which has cost him about $200,000 to $300,000 per year in lost revenue.

This ruling also stands to effect regulation of other "injurious" species like zebra mussels and Asian carp. The former pair breed quickly and outcompete native shellfish, and they clog water intakes at power plants and treatment facilities. This has caused more than $2 billion in damages. Carp similarly outcompete and out-eat native fish, and states in the Great Lakes have gone to enormous lengths to prevent the animal's arrival. The D.C. Circuit ruling could complicate efforts to prevent the spread of these invasives, concluding as it does that under the current law the feds don't have the broad authority they thought they did to prevent interstate shipment of injurious species.

Many people have been confused or misled about the language within the Lacey Act, says Peter Jenkins, an attorney and consultant, and president of the Center for Invasive Species Prevention. The act doesn't given the government the authority to prevent interstate trade of "injurious" animals, even though that was the intent of laws passed by Congress to stop the spread of zebra mussels, Asian carp and other such nuisance species.

The ruling shows that the legal basis for invasive species prevention needs shoring up and simplification, and parties on both sides of the issue seem to agree that it would be helpful for Congress to step in to make some commonsense changes to this section of the Lacey Act.

In addition to snakes, 67 native species of native salamander listed as injurious in 2016 should now be allowed to be freely shipped across state lines. These creatures were listed as a pre-emptive measure to prevent the spread of a potentially deadly fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal for short. Though that pathogen hasn't yet made it into U.S. populations (as far as scientists know), it has been founded in Europe and is thought to be spread via the pet trade.

Lawyers for the government have until mid-May to appeal the ruling, but legal experts agree it's unlikely to be significantly altered. David Frulla, the attorney for the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, says the ruling will have "imminent" but not "immediate" effect. "It's exciting [the reptile keepers] won and that this pet trade isn't going to be restricted in the same way," he says.