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Reptile industry trade association sues US government to overturn ban on 4 giant snake species

A nationwide ban on importing four giant snake species or transporting them across state lines is costing reptile breeders, handlers, hobbyists and vendors millions and should be overturned, according to a lawsuit filed by a reptile industry trade association.

The ban on Burmese pythons, yellow anacondas, and northern and southern African pythons was announced last year in the Florida Everglades, which officials say pythons regard as an all-you-can-eat wildlife buffet where they have no competition except humans.

A lawsuit filed last week in federal court in Washington, D.C., seeks to overturn the ban. The North Carolina-based United States Association of Reptile Keepers says the ban is unnecessary and challenges the science behind it. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are named as defendants.

The ban applies a one-size-fits-all approach to a problem primarily affecting South Florida, said Joan Galvin, the attorney representing the reptile keepers.

Florida's population of Burmese pythons, which are native to India and other parts of Asia, likely developed from pets let loose either intentionally or in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The snakes don't adapt to cold weather, which means they wouldn't last long anywhere else in winter. "Anywhere, pretty much, outside of Florida, they would have zero survival skills and would not pose a problem," Galvin said Monday.

According to the lawsuit, an initial proposal to ban nine snake species cost the reptile industry tens of millions of dollars as buyers shied away from spending money on pets they might not be able to move to another state. Some of the association's members euthanized brood stock they couldn't care for in an evaporating market.

Five species, including boa constrictors and other anacondas, eventually were dropped from the ban but remain under consideration.

Ken Warren, a spokesman for the wildlife service, said the ban will help prevent non-native snakes from spreading and protects native wildlife. The snakes can grow to be roughly 20 feet long or longer, and officials have said the threat the snakes pose to indigenous wildlife could undermine the expensive efforts Florida and the federal government are making to restore natural water flows to the Everglades.

"This is in response to significant ecological impacts observed as a result of a self-sustaining, wild population of Burmese pythons in Florida," Warren said. "These snakes have the potential to expand beyond South Florida. Large constrictor snakes have demonstrated that they are highly adaptable to new environments, consume a large number and variety of native species, and dramatically change the ecosystems they invade."

Florida law prohibits the possession or sale of Burmese pythons and southern or northern African pythons, among other large non-native snakes not included in the federal ban, for use as pets.

The reptile keepers association isn't interested in challenging the Florida law, Galvin said.

"We believe Florida stepped up and handled what they perceived was their issue. As for the 49 other states, we believe this (federal ban) is invasive," Galvin said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission allows hunters with special permits to remove pythons and other exotic reptiles from some state lands. Earlier this year, a state-sanctioned python hunt attracted worldwide attention but netted just 68 of the snakes. Officials said the monthlong hunt succeeded in raising awareness about Florida's python problem.

State wildlife officials also have intensified efforts to keep a cluster of northern African pythons, also called rock pythons, just west of Miami from spreading elsewhere. One of the aggressive snakes killed a Siberian husky in the dog's backyard in September.

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Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jnkay.

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