By Nick Rummell
WASHINGTON (CN) - Finding that the ban against the interstate transportation of large constricting snakes is based in part on the history of a tiny mollusk, a federal judge promised the reptile industry an injunction Tuesday.
The legal battle stems from the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add four species of constricting snakes to a federal list of snakes the Department of the Interior deems "injurious" under the Lacey Act.
Though that final rule only took effect earlier this year, the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK) filed its suit in 2013 as a challenge to the preceding proposal.
The four species of snake whose interstate transportation the rule prohibits are the reticulated python, DeSchauensee's anaconda, the green anaconda and Beni anaconda. The reticulated python can grow to 20 feet in length, and the green anaconda is considered the heaviest snake in the world.
Such snakes could still be kept as pets under the new rule, which stems from the government's finding that they are "injurious" to local wildlife and difficult to contain.
Regulators said thousands of these beasts are turning up in the wild, mostly in South Florida, after they get too big for their owners to handle.
Were any of these species to get a foothold in a warm climate like Florida or Texas, it would be "extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate" them, the government said, because "all four species are cryptically colored and blend in with their surroundings; have low profiles; can hide in thick brush, trees, or in water; and are frequently inactive [and\ thus undetectable."
The government estimates that preventing or reducing the spread of invasive-constrictor species costs authorities nearly $600,000 a year.
U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss noted Tuesday, however that an amendment to the Lacey Act, codified at Section 3372 of Title 16, would let the government "impose criminal liability for shipments of listed snakes into the states where the emergence of an invasive population is most probable."
In support of its claims that the interstate ban would harm reptile breeders, USARK had pointed to the findings of a study it commissioned that large, constricting snakes bring $100 million a year to the $1 billion reptile business. Specially bred "morph" snakes can sell for tens of thousands of dollars each, the group claimed.
Moss conceded that the harms USARK mentioned "are more certain to come to pass than the risks identified by the government," but added that "the severity of the potential public harms here is great enough that the public interest and balance of equities favor" regulators.
"In sum, the potential for a new invasive constrictor species becoming established in any part of the United States is an extremely serious threat to the public interest-much more serious than any of the private harms asserted by plaintiffs," Moss added.
While the government swayed the court "at least to the extent shipments of the listed snakes to Florida and Texas are permitted," Moss said USARK demonstrated that it deserves "injunctive relief at least with respect to interstate transportation of reticulated pythons and green anacondas into at least the 47 states in which those snakes are unlikely to establish wild invasive populations."
In predicting that the best course of action is to limit the scope of any injunction to reach only shipments to colder states, Moss said USARK did demonstrate that its members "have any particular need to ship reticulated pythons or green anacondas to Florida and Texas."
USARK had noted that the interstate-transportation ban would have serious ramifications for the Beni anaconda and DeSchauensee's anaconda, since neither is are found in the United States.
As written, the rule would give python breeders already in the United States only 30 days to change their breeding practices to nonreticulated species, potentially bankrupting many breeders who would have to euthanize their stock, USARK said.
"I don't think there is any doubt that this decision is correct," said Shawn Gehan, an attorney with Kelley Drye & Warren who is representing USARK.
Gehan said the Lacey Law, one of the earliest conservation laws still on the books, was not used as intended in the rule. "It would need to more than just a big wild animal gets loose and causes temporary havoc [for the court to prohibit interstate transport\," he said. "This is not what Congress had in mind when drafting the [Lacey Act\."
The 50-page opinion notes "the scope of the Interior Department's authority to regulate the interstate transportation of 'injurious species' depends on the history of the zebra mussel, which is a mollusk about the size of a quarter, and the bighead carp, which is a freshwater fish with a voracious appetite."
Asian carp became a thorn in the side of regulators as efforts to contain them in recent years have largely failed.
The parties must brief the court on the proper scope of the injunction, an issue they will address at a May 18 status conference, according to the 50-page ruling.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not return calls for comment.