Monday, May 11, 2009

Poor Regulation of Wildlife Imports

Hearings on H.R. 669, the Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act, have publicized some weaknesses in how the U.S. handles wild animals brought into the country.

The global wildlife trade generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The team analyzed Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) data gathered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2000 through 2006 and found the United States imported upward of 1.5 billion live wildlife animals. The vast majority of the imports were from wild populations in more than 190 countries around the world and were intended for commercial sale in the United States — primarily in the pet trade....

The team also found that more than 86 percent of the shipments were not classified to the level of species, despite federal guidelines that mandate species-level labeling. The lack of accurate reporting makes it impossible to fully assess the diversity of animals imported or calculate the risk of nonnative species or the diseases they may carry, the team wrote.

“Shipments are coming in labeled ‘live vertebrate’ or ‘fish,’” Daszak said. “If we don’t know what animals are coming in, how do we know which are going to become invasive species or carry diseases that could affect livestock, wildlife or ourselves?”
Most of the linked article concerns the potential effects this lack of regulation has on the spread of disease. Such focus is understandable in light of ongoing concerns over swine flu. However, the uncontrolled importation of wildlife creates problems for ecosystems here and abroad. In the U.S., nonnative species may be introduced into local ecosystems and crowd out native species that fill similar niches. (Many of these native species are already vulnerable due to habitat loss and degradation.) Unrestrained trade deprives other countries of their native wildlife. If the imported animals belong to a threatened species – which border inspectors may or may not be able to recognize – then permitting such trade could hasten the species's slide towards oblivion or hamper its recovery.

H.R. 669 may not be the correct instrument to deal with these problems. It certainly has attracted some very vocal opposition from both scientists and the pet industry. Whether or not this particular bill passes, there ought to be better oversight of what wildlife is brought into the country.