Deregulation of protections against invasive species can have dire long-term economic consequences

This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst

The debate over the economic consequences of federal regulations intended to curb the prevalence of invasive species continues on Capitol Hill. During a Sept. 14 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican committee leaders released a report entitled “Broken Government: How the Administrative State has Broken President Obama’s Promise of Regulatory Reform.”

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) asserted that currently, “the regulatory process is broken, being manipulated and exploited in an effort to reward allies of the Obama administration such as environmental groups, trial lawyers, and unions.” The committee report outlines several regulations that Republicans believe have not undergone a sufficient cost-benefit analysis, including a proposed rule from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that would designate the Burmese python and eight other snake species as “injurious” and consequently, illegal to transport across state lines.

The committee heard testimony from David Barker, a herpetologist and owner of Vida Preciosa International, Inc., a snake-breeding business specializing in pythons and boas. He is also a member of the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers. Barker said that FWS’s regulation “lacks a scientific basis, being based on a single flawed study that has not withstood scientific review.” Of the establishment of Burmese Pythons in the Florida everglades, he contends “there has been no empirical evidence that their presence has threatened the ecosystem or caused any serious disruption.” Barker asserted that the regulation “threatens as many as a million law-abiding American citizens and their families with the penalty of a felony conviction for pursuing their livelihoods, for pursuing their hobby, or for simply moving with their pet to a new state.”

In his opening statement, Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) noted, “with all due respect to our witnesses from the Association of Reptile Keepers, repealing a so-called ‘job-killing’ regulation to allow more pythons, boa constrictors and anacondas into the United States is not the kind of bold, bipartisan solution Americans are looking for to help the economy.” Committee Democrats also put forward several letters that countered many of the arguments of Barker and Chairman Issa regarding invasive pythons.

Among these was a joint letter spearheaded by several national and Florida conservation groups including The Nature Conservancy, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Everglades Foundation that focused specifically on the threat posed by Burmese pythons. The letter states that “monitoring has shown that state and federally threatened and endangered species, including the Wood Stork and Key Largo woodrat, are already being predated by these large constrictors. Because these predatory snakes are cryptic, highly productive and can take advantage of difficult to-access aquatic habitats, eradication is difficult and expensive.” The letter asserts that “additional public funds may be required to recover native species impacted by these invasive constrictors, and private landowners face long-term financial hardship if eradication and management measures become necessary on their own properties.”

A recent scientific study gives weight to the arguments made by Rep. Cummings and the conservations groups. Published in the Ecological Economics journal, the study is the first to quantify the benefits of screening live animals before they enter the country, according to the paper’s authors. The study estimates that the long-term net benefits of implementing a risk screening system ranges from $54,000 to $150,000 per species assessed. In contrast, the study notes that managing current invasive species such as the Burmese python, Asian carp and red lionfish collectively cost federal, state and local agencies tens of millions of dollars each year.

Already, federal and state local officials have put forward a $7 million plan intended to halt the expansion of Asian carp into the Great Lakes. Regional officials fear intrusion of the fish could starve out native species and decimate the region’s sport fishery industry, estimated to be worth $7 billion to the local economy. A previous report from Ecological Economics estimated that the combined cost of managing environmental damages to invasive plant and animal species adds up to almost $120 billion per year. The report noted that invasive species threaten 42 percent of species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

As policymakers weigh initiatives to address short-term economic and fiscal needs, the long-term effects, both ecological and economical should be taken into account as efforts to deregulate are considered. The study from Ecological Economics highlights the fact that the choices we make affecting the environment can have a serious impact on our long-term economic and fiscal well-being.

Photo Credit: FWS

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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