The Way Washington Works

By on January 17, 2012 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

It’s amazing how in Washington, D.C., the simplest things can turn into a mess.

Burmese python
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s announcement by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in the Everglades to ban the import and trade in Burmese pythons, yellow anacondas, and northern and southern African pythons is, to be sure, an important advance—for animal welfare, conservation, and public safety. These large constricting snakes are not suitable as pets; they suffer from capture in the wild and long-distance transport for trade; they can injure and kill people who possess or interact with them; and they can wreak havoc on our natural resources as an invasive species, killing native wildlife, including endangered animals.

But there’s a back story here, and it says so much about Washington, D.C., and how good policy and common-sense ideas get scuttled, delayed, or weakened in this town, to the detriment of the nation.

Here’s a timeline.

June 2006: The South Florida Water Management District petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) requesting the listing of Burmese pythons as injurious under the Lacey Act, a federal law that regulates trade in wildlife.

January 2008: FWS published a Notice of Inquiry in the Federal Register asking the public for comments on several large constrictor snakes.

July 2009: U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the dangers posed by large constricting snakes to Florida’s ecosystems, unveiling the skin of a 17-foot Burmese python perhaps shed in the Everglades.

October 2009: The U.S. Geological Survey issued a science-based report that identifies nine species of large, constricting snakes as posing a medium or high risk as invasive species in the United States.

March 2010: FWS issued a proposed rule to list nine large constrictor snakes as injurious under the Lacey Act.

January 2011: Open Secrets, a website that discloses federal lobbying expenditures, announced that the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers spent $120,000 lobbying against the FWS rule. USARK submitted a report saying that banning the trade in these species would cost the industry $100 million–an utterly absurd figure.

March 2011: The White House Office of Management and Budget/Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs received the final rule from FWS. (This White House agency's review process is usually 90 days, yet the rule was held up for 10 months.)

January 2012: Salazar makes the announcement covering only the four species.

What or who got in the way here? There’s only one reasonable explanation: narrow thinking and poor political judgment at OMB.

The folks who run OMB for President Barack Obama are focused on the vulnerability of the administration on the jobs issue, with Obama facing a competitive re-election with high unemployment numbers. So when USARK and its lobbyists made a jobs argument, it struck a nerve at OMB. OMB appeared ready to kill the whole thing, until lawmakers from Florida on both sides of the aisle started demanding action. Ten of the 11 largest newspapers in Florida urged adoption of the FWS rule and demanded that the Obama administration stop dragging its feet and do something about the trade in these invasive, dangerous species.

The administration had to do something; it had to deal with the Burmese python. But in the end, it excluded five species from the import restrictions—two of which, boa constrictors and reticulated pythons, alone make up two-thirds of the trade. As a result, the trade is likely to shift to these species. Salazar said his agency will watch and see how things are going with the other constrictor snakes, and consider banning the other five species down the road, but given the administration’s track record on this issue, that seems highly implausible.

So, in the end, no one is happy—not animal advocates or environmentalists, or even the reptile dealers. The administration shows itself as weak, quick to jettison science for politics, and essentially tone-deaf on this entire issue in the critical battleground state of Florida, whose electorate and opinion leaders clearly want something done about invasive species of snakes.

And for the animal protection community, the burning question is, if OMB cannot stand up to the reptile dealers—who created this problem by peddling high-risk snakes to unqualified individuals and cost the government tens of millions of dollars in invasive species control efforts—how is it going to handle the really tough animal welfare problems the country faces?

Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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