HR 511 Part One: An Introduction to HR 511 and the Junk Science Behind It

By Erika N. Chen-Walsh

Because we focused on the snake, we missed the scorpion.”  ~ Egyptian Proverb

The Legislative History of HR 511

US Congressman Tom Rooney (R-FL)

On January 26, 2011, U.S. Representative Thomas J. Rooney (R-FL) introduced House Resolution 511 which seeks to amend title 18, United States Code (the “Lacey Act”), to prohibit the importation of nine species of constrictor snakes as injurious species.  These include the following: of the Indian python of the species Python molurus, including the Burmese python of the species Python molurus bivittatus; of the reticulated python of the species Broghammerus reticulatus or Python reticulatus; of the Northern African python of the species Python sebae; of the Southern African python of the species Python natalensis; of the boa constrictor of the species Boa constrictor; of the yellow anaconda of the species Eunectes notaeus; of the DeSchauensee’s anaconda of the species Eunectes deschauenseei; of the green anaconda of the species Eunectes murinus; of the Beni anaconda of the species Eunectes beniensis.’

Following its introduction, HR 511, it was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.  From there, on February 14, 2011, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.  On February 27, 2012, it was discharged from that committee.  It was ordered to be reported on September 28, 2012 by a voice vote and was finally reported out on October 5, 2012 and referred to the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs.  On November 29, 2012, the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs held a hearing on HR 511.

What is Behind HR 511 and Its Predecessors:  Garbage In, Garbage Out

At the outset, it is important to understand the facts.  HR 511 is not something new.  Permutations of it have been floating around for approximately five years.  In 2011, the Obama administration was successful in passing a rule change to the Lacey Act that made the interstate transport of four species of constrictor snakes illegal.  That rule change went into effect in February 2012.

The rule change was contingent upon the same fatally flawed “science” upon which the proponents of HR 511 continue to rely.  The house of cards began with the United States Geological Survey (“USGS”) and its “study” entitled, “What Parts of the US Mainland are Climatically Suitable for Invasive Alien Pythons Spreading from Everglades National Park” (“Climate Match”).  The study was flawed for many reasons, including but not limited to:

  • An incorrect conclusion that Burmese pythons can live throughout the bottom third of the United States;
  • It was erroneously based on temperature averages instead of temperature extremes leading to the incorrect conclusion that tropical pythons can survive the low temperatures ranges in areas outside of the southernmost tip of Florida;
  • It falsified data points in the published study by manufacturing data that were not in the data set by as much as 60% for a single country; and
  • It was widely condemned by scientists from around the world, including the National Geographic Society, University of Florida, and the Thailand National Natural History Museum.

The Climate Match was followed by a second piece of propaganda, a gray paper entitled, “Giant Constrictors: Biological and Management Profiles and an Establishment Risk Assessment for Nine Species of Pythons, Anacondas and the Boa constrictor.” (The “Constrictor Report”.)  The Constrictor Report, a USGS internally generated document, was based on the junk science Climate Match. It was not peer reviewed and it was not published in any journal.

A panel of eleven independent experts from the National Geographic Society, the University of Florida, Texas A&M University and others condemned the Constrictor Report, stating in a letter to the US Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee that the Constrictor Report was “not scientific” and “not suitable as the basis for regulatory or legislative policy decisions.”  Even USGS itself, in its response to an Information Quality Act challenge generated by the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (“USARK”), was forced to admit that, “This document was not designated by the USGS as a highly influential, scientific document.”

HR 511 and its predecessors that have been buzzing around Washington DC like a throbbing swarm of bees is based on a “study” with falsified data and incorrect assumptions.  Its foundation is ideological propaganda meant to terrorize lay people and influence law makers.

Part Two of this Series will examine the truth about pythons in the Everglades and the heroes of the subcommittee hearing on November 29, 2012.

Part Three will dispel fact from fiction about constrictor snakes.

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11 thoughts on “HR 511 Part One: An Introduction to HR 511 and the Junk Science Behind It

  1. I guess I dont see why there is such an uproar about this with the Herp community of which I am a part of. Currently there exists a huge problem in Florida and the authorities want to prevent that sort of thing from happening in the future. Their actions are just a small contribution to supplement the much needed regulation on various importation entities, irresponsible parties, etc. The science is very good as well. It can be reproduced and it reveals numerous facts that contribute to invasive species controls and population dynamics! Most of which, invasives in Florida for example… are contributing to endemic herp species declines by means of such things as simple competition for food resources. I would rather have our native fauna survive any day!

    • Thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to respond, Rob. I disagree that there exists a huge problem in Florida. The numbers suggest a problem that is on the decline. Regardless, the real answer is extirpation, but politics have precluded extirpation from consideration.

      The science is not good and has been resoundingly criticized in the scientific community. The scientifically sound studies that have been done support the conclusion that pythons cannot survive north of the three southernmost counties in Florida. They cannot hibernate and the cold kills them.

      In addition, there are many reasons for mammal decline in the Everglades. Shawn Heflick, in his testimony, articulated multitudinous reasons for the mammal decline. I will not repeat here what he has already said so articulately.

      Finally, there is no reason that this should be a federal issue. Our Constitution limited the powers of the federal government for very good reasons. All powers not specifically enumerated are reserved to the states. This is a state issue. Florida is dealing with its own problem. It is a gross over-reach for this type of legislation to affect every citizen in every state and territory.

  2. I am a herp guy, and live in Florida. I think it’s too early to claim that pythons either are, or are not, to blame for the declines in mammal populations. Why wait for confirmation that they are? They can obviously eat a lot if there are any number of them (which there are), which puts a strain on the existing native animals.

    It’s unfortunate that the focus of discussion has been on the potential for population expansion by invasive pythons, as this is unlikely, and tends to undermine the greater message of prohibition of sales and ownership in Florida. The “glory days” of exotic animals are over, and pet owners have proven that they are not responsible enough to allow the continued sale of large, invasive pythons and boas. The dollar amounts claimed by the reptile industry are equally dubious. Reptile dealers can survive just fine on smaller snakes, lizards, and amphibians, and, in fact, the economics are such that it is more profitable to raise and sell smaller herps.

    The economic threat of invasive pythons in Florida dwarfs any potential gain that a handful of people may derive from the sale of pythons. This is not just “Florida’s problem,” as was claimed. If they are prohibited for sale in Florida, they will still find their way here in the trunks of cars. I find it disheartening that reptile dealers and owners, who claim to have a love and appreciation for their herps, look the other way when considering what certain invasives can do to native animals and ecosystems. The message one takes from this is, “I want my right to keep whatever pet I choose!” instead of, “I love all herps, and support what’s best for all creatures, native, and non-native.” Many pet owners are responsible, but others are not, and the issue is serious enough that steps must be taken to prevent illegal releases.

    On many occasions I have slogged through the Everglades in waist-deep water, and can tell you that it is a beautiful, and important ecosystem. It is worth saving, and all Americans have a vested interest in its preservation. This means that all States that might contribute to the problem, must be regulated. Individuals will not regulate themselves.

    • Bruce,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and to respond. I agree with you that this is a Florida problem. Florida has already enacted legislation to prohibit the ownership of large constrictors, which is the appropriate response.

      HR511 will not help the situation in Florida, and research shows that large constrictors cannot survive north of the southernmost tip of Florida.

      Erika

  3. …by the way, recent population estimates for the Burmese python alone are from 30,000 to over 100,000, and the recent re-capture of the large female yielded 87 eggs. That’s enough to constitute a big problem, and anyone who attempts to divert attention away from this is either ignorant, or serving other interests.

    News flash: a breeding population of boa constrictors is now in Puerto Rico, threatening the native boa. How much more evidence do we need that prohibition of this trade is necessary?

    • Burmese pythons are a problem in southern Florida and not elsewhere. There are now Florida laws to deal with it. More laws will not improve Florida’s situation.

      Puerto Rico (which is south of Florida and unlike the continental US outside of southern Florida, has a climate in which large constrictors can survive) already has statutes making the ownership of Boa constrictors and other large constrictors illegal. Puerto Rico needs to enforce its own existing laws. If they are not enforcing the laws they have, more laws will not have any effect whatsoever.

  4. Bruce stated: “If they are prohibited for sale in Florida, they will still find their way here in the trunks of cars.”
    If someone is willing to violate Florida’s law and drive from out-of-state to south Florida to release Burmese pythons, what makes you think they would change their mind because they would also be violating the Lacey Act? HR 511 would no not stop anyone from continuing to own their python or to buy a python from someone in their own state, so pythons would still be available to be brought down to south Florida. By the way, I lived in the everglades, love the everglades, and want to do what is effective to protect the everglades. HR 511 doesn’t help.
    I do agree with Bruce that we do not know yet enough to draw conclusions on the impact of Burmese pythons on the everglades.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my post and respond, Rick. I agree with you that HR 511 would have no impact whatsoever on the problem of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. There is a current rule change in effect that makes it illegal to transport Burmese pythons across state lines. However, you are completely correct that more laws do not increase or improve compliance with existing laws. Rule breakers are rule breakers, regardless of what the rules are.

  5. Pingback: Wordpress » Blog Archive » Rally For Reptiles HR511 Update

  6. Great article! However, those supporting HR 511 don’t seem to want to listen. I’ve been in enough discussions on this topic to conclude that most people supporting laws like HR 511 already have at least one of these two beliefs/opinions:
    – that any individual species that is not indigenous will wreak havoc on the ecosystem
    – that people (well, maybe except them) are too stupid and irresponsible to own certain animals,

    Neither of those predispositions is scientific. The first is grossly over-simplistic, and the second is elitist. Just look at the responses you’ve gotten so far from HR 511 supporters. None even attempted to counter your well articulated destruction of the “science” being used to support the bill. Junk science being put forth by a Federal government is a truly dangerous thing. That is the true crime here. Anyway, again, great article, thanks for writing it!

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