An appeals court has ruled the federal government cannot legally stop trade of Burmese pythons and other giant exotic snakes within the continental U.S.
However, snake owners are cautioned not to move their reptiles just yet, as other legal challenges may remain. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the ruling.
The North Carolina-based United States Association of Reptile Keepers sued the U.S. government in 2013, asking a federal court in Washington, D.C., to overturn a nationwide ban on importing certain constrictor species or transporting them across state lines.
Trying to protect native wildlife and prevent non-native snakes from spreading, U.S. wildlife officials banned Burmese pythons, yellow anacondas, and northern and southern African pythons in 2012. The ban was extended to reticulated pythons, DeSchauensee's anacondas, green anacondas and Beni anacondas in 2015.
The first giant snake ban was announced in 2012 in the Florida Everglades, where officials say tens of thousands Burmese pythons have decimated populations of native mammals that had never before encountered such a large predator. Native to parts of Asia, pythons found a home in the Miami-area wetlands after being intentionally let loose by their owners or escaping breeding facilities after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The ruling does not change the ban on importing these snakes or other "injurious" species, nor does it affect state laws such as Florida's prohibition against keeping pythons as pets.
The entire ban was unnecessary because the vast majority of exotic snakes sold in the U.S. are bred domestically, and they could only survive in the wild in a handful of counties in Florida and Texas, said Phil Goss, president of the reptile keepers association.
"I understand Florida has a unique situation, but if you look at this anywhere else in the country, it's an issue of government overreach," Goss said.
In an April 7 decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's ruling that the wildlife service didn't have authority under the Lacey Act to restrict interstate trade of these snakes.
"While we are aware of the risk posed by the spread of invasive species, one size doesn't necessarily fit all. We will work with the Department of Justice to identify impacts and appropriate next steps for the Administration," wildlife service spokesman Ken Warren said in an email Monday.
Acknowledging that snakes that can grow 20 feet long "are no garden-variety snakes," the court said the act only gives the government the authority to stop trade between the continental United States and Hawaii or other territories — not shipments within the contiguous 49 states.
The court cited the Chicago Manual of Style among other guides for proper grammar to rebuff the government's argument that the act's wording bars shipments from any of the 49 continental states to any other continental state.
"The government's arguments cannot overcome the plain text of the shipment clause," the ruling states.
The court didn't address the scientific data that justified the ban, said Collette Adkins, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which partnered with the government and the Humane Society of the United States in the litigation.
"This has implications for any invasive species that could establish populations through interstate trade," Adkins said Monday.
The reptile keepers' attorneys said the ruling would restore snake owners' freedom to attend trade shows, seek veterinary care and keep their pets with them when they move to different states.