MIAMI — When Burmese pythons began slithering across Everglades levees in increasingly alarming numbers, state water managers petitioned the federal government to crack down on the pet trade’s sale of the giant snakes.
In the five years since, a string of studies, congressional hearings, articles and nature shows — not to mention bad sci-fi movies — have painted the python as a monstrous ecological menace that threatened to spread to other states.
But the proposal to ban the import and interstate sale of Burmese pythons and eight other large exotic snakes has stalled, swallowed up in White House bureaucracy for nearly a year. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has written letters urging the Obama administration to approve the snake ban.
Despite the pressure, the effort to declare the snakes “injurious species” through a cumbersome administrative process called the Lacey Act remains in doubt. The proposal has been buffeted by surging anti-regulatory fervor in Washington and scientific controversy over whether the snakes really pose much of a risk beyond South Florida.
The fact that the snakes acquired lobbyists may explain a few things as well.
The U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers, backed by a small but passionate group of snake breeders and collectors and a New York law firm, has mounted a campaign shrewdly positioning the python restrictions as “job-killing” federal red tape based on shaky science.
“This thing has tons of problems and no redeeming qualities,” said ARK President Andrew Wyatt. “A Lacey Act listing isn’t going to change one thing on the ground in South Florida now. It is going to put people out of work.”
The Obama administration’s delay has befuddled and frustrated proponents of a measure supported by Everglades National Park managers, federal wildlife agencies, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and many scientists and environmental groups.
“What this has shown is that any little segment of industry can hire a lobbyist, get an economic study done and hold up just about any regulation,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney for the National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species, comprised of environmental and science groups. “If we can’t push this over the finish line, what the hell can we regulate?”
No one — including reptile breeders — disputes Burmese pythons are a big problem in South Florida. In the Everglades and its surrounding farm and wild lands, a population estimated in the thousands has eaten everything from alligators to endangered wood rats. Two months ago, in the latest gruesome find, South Florida Water Management District workers captured a 16-footer swollen with a 76-pound deer inside.
Florida wildlife managers have moved swiftly on the snake threat, last year effectively banning personal ownership of Burmese pythons and seven other constrictors as pets. Snakes whose owners had obtained $100 annual licenses and implanted them with microchips before July 2010 were grandfathered in. Reptile breeders, dealers, researchers and exhibitors also can continue operating under a separate permit program, as long as they agree to strict storage and transport rules.
But it’s proven far more difficult to secure sweeping nationwide curbs on the pet trade, which many scientists blame for first unleashing pythons into the Everglades.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 1.8 million of the nine species of large constrictors — pythons, boas and anacondas — that it wants declared “injurious” were imported between 1999 and 2008. The agency also estimated that more than 50,000 domestically bred snakes had been sold during the same period.
A 2009 bill to ban Burmese python imports filed by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., never got far — though he clearly got his colleagues’ attention when he unrolled the skin of a 17-footer killed in the Everglades during one hearing. Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lacey Act proposal to declare the seven species “injurious” — which could be enacted without congressional approval — has been hung up since March in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman for the OMB, which analyzes the economic impacts of proposed administrative rules, said in an email that the office doesn’t comment on pending rules but extended reviews aren’t “uncommon.”
Parties on both sides believe the snake ban has lost steam in a Washington political climate that has cooled to new environmental rules.
“I think the White House got jittery that somehow this was fitting into a frame of regulatory over-reaching,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which has joined environmental groups in lobbying for approval of the python import ban.
With continuing pressure led by Florida lawmakers, Pacelle said he is optimistic the OMB will back the snake restrictions. “I think we’ve turned a bit of a corner on this,” he said.
Wyatt, ARK’s president, disagrees.
“The White House is sitting on it,” he said. “They’re kind of hoping it will just go away.”
By Wyatt’s estimate, ARK has spent more than $400,000 on its lobbying campaign over the last three years — a huge sum for a North Carolina-based group that claims only 12,000 members but a fraction of what proponents have poured into vilifying the constrictors, he said.
“Basically, we were getting killed on this thing because we didn’t have an advocate,” he said.
ARK’s New York law firm, Kelley Drye & Warren, produced an economic study claiming the injurious species listing would cost the $1.4 billion reptile industry about 10 percent of its revenue every year — $104 million — and cost thousands of cottage industry jobs.
Jenkins, the environmental coalition attorney, dismissed the data as “completely bogus.”
A federal analysis, for instance, predicted far less impact — no more than 300 jobs and $11 million in losses, a figured dwarfed by $100 million a year that one agency alone, the U.S. Interior Department, was spending on controlling the pythons and a host of other invasive species.
Eleven Florida lawmakers, joined by 14 other congressional members, have written the White House, saying the delay was costing taxpayers millions of dollars annually and exposing wider areas to colonization by large, powerful snakes.
In her letter, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., cautioned against weakening the restrictions on dangerous snakes that are difficult and expensive to control in the wild, can disrupt the natural balance of the Everglades and from time to time prey on their owners. The invasive species coalition has pinpointed 13 deaths from pet pythons over 20 years.
“To offer a half measure, by restricting just a small number of the snakes, would result in the trade shifting from one dangerous species to another and would not achieve any lasting policy solution,” she wrote.
Python dealers have their champions as well. In a July letter, four Republicans, including Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, urged the OMB to dump the proposal they described as overkill, a “generalized solution to a localized problem.”
In September, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — whose chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has long railed at environmental regulation — pointed to the python proposal as prime example of “broken government” manipulated by environmentalists, lawyers and others.
Critics have also attacked studies critical to seeking the nationwide ban — particularly a risk assessment produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2009. It found that based on climate alone, South Texas and tropical islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico were at high risk but a few of the hardier species also could potentially make a go of it in the warm southern belt of the U.S.
David Barker, a Texas breeder and python expert who sells expensive color “morphs” to collectors around the country by mail, has been among the most savage critics, accusing a “rogue band” of federal scientists of exaggerating the threat to secure millions of dollars in research support and scoffing at the idea of snakes somehow learning to survive outside South Florida.
Barker also believes Hurricane Andrew’s destruction of breeder facilities in South Miami-Dade is the most likely suspect in the Everglades invasion — a theory federal scientists have rejected.
“There is just no evidence that there is a steady stream of release animals from pet owners,” Barker said.
It’s not just breeders who have questioned the federal risk assessment. Other scientists also have been skeptical about the climate analysis.
Frank Burbrink, a biology professor at City University of New York, co-authored one paper concluding that the python threat was likely confined to South Florida or very small, very hot spots and that there nothing to suggest they could adapt to more northern climes.
“Over 90 million years they haven’t done it in their home range,” Burbrink said, “So why would you expect them to do it after 10 years in the United States?”
Florida’s record cold snap in 2010 provided more ammunition, knocking back — though not out — the Glades population of pythons by an estimated half or more. The 130 captured through October this year are only about a third of the pre-freeze 2009 total captured. That same 2010 freeze also killed 10 pythons that were part of a climate experiment in South Carolina, as well as seven of nine in another experiment in Gainesville.
Still, Gordon Rodda, a USGS biologist who co-authored the risk assessment and follow-up study rebutting critics, said nothing has emerged to invalidate its findings.
“There isn’t a serious map out there as far as I know that doesn’t show all of Florida at risk,” he said.
Rodda acknowledged on-going debate about the potential national impact of the snake. Scientists are still trying to understand its impact on Glades wildlife.
“Are there people in the community that have a different sense of the climate match? Undoubtedly,” he said. “You don’t get three scientists together and not have three different opinions.”
Michael Dorcas, a biology professor at Davidson College in North Carolina who has authored science journals and a book about invasive pythons, said critics focus too much on the end result of the cold studies.
In the South Carolina study, which he oversaw, snakes that had adapted to the steamy Everglades managed to survive a dozen nights no warmer than 41 degrees before dying in a freeze that also killed native animals. That suggests, he said, a potential range for hardier constrictors beyond South Florida.
He laughed at suggestions scientists were hyping the threat to free up funding.
“I just find it ironic that people who talk about our ‘money-driven’ agenda are the one who make their living selling pythons,” he said. “The fact remains the pythons are here because of the pet industry. Whether they were released accidentally or intentionally — at this point, it really doesn’t matter.”