Categorized | Paying for Conservation

Invasive Species: Costs of Inaction

Laws protecting America from invasive species go back a hundred years and provide a basis for preventing importation of potential, invasive wildlife, such as the notorious Burmese python, snakehead, and lionfish.  Yet, virtually no regulation restricting entry of “injurious” wildlife actually has taken place—at least not until after the invasions occur.  Economists find that invasive wildlife species cause damages estimated in the tens of billions of damage each year.  This suggests a total mismatch between the costs from regulating entry of exotic pets and certain other species, which often are very low, versus the potential benefits.

All invasive plants and animals (not just the pets) contributed to an estimated 40% of endangered species listings.  Ironically, protection of these endangered species in the U.S., after they are listed, has imposed huge costs.  An ounce of prevention could have saved billions of dollars.

If someone wants to import a snake to sell in an exotic pet store, they first check a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) List of Injurious Wildlife.  Until this year, you could import any reptile in the world, except the brown tree snake.  After six years of hard work, FWS just finalized a rule that will add the Burmese python and certain other constrictors to their List of Injurious Wildlife.  The list of injurious birds identifies only six bird families, which include familiar names like “sparrow” and “starling.”  There are eight wildlife family types listed in the “Fish, Mollusks, and Crustaceans” category, but they include 4 carp varieties, as well as the zebra mussel and snakehead, wildlife families which already include major invasive species.  If we are looking for scary critters where the FWS List of Injurious Wildlife successfully protects us by prohibiting entry into the U.S., the list is very short.

Successful regulation under current rules will require considering the thousands of wildlife types that enter the U.S. and finding the small percentage whose “survival capabilities, ability to spread, impacts on habitats,”  threat to endangered species, and for whom our ability to control them imply a need for FWS to evaluate them for a possible injurious species rule writing.  This is not an insurmountable task, but the job of evaluating thousands of species and developing rules for those selected for regulation will require substantially more resources than FWS currently assigns.  It might also be necessary to expedite rule development, to avoid government costs of a process that now can take six years.  The process wisely considers economic costs and benefits of excluding a species from entry into the U.S.  So an evaluation strategy might begin with wildlife headed for certain exotic pet stores and other opportunities, where the costs of excluding a critter from entry into the U.S. often are very low.  Some strategies also call for major legislative changes to address invasive species.

Exotic pet stores represent a very modest portion of the U.S. economy, and these stores surely can substitute other exotic creatures for sell when FWS determines that certain species need inclusion in their List of Injurious Wildlife.  Costs of continued inaction could be immense.

This post was written by:

- who has written 7 posts on dotWild.

Clayton Ogg is the Director, Conservation Economics & Finance for Defenders of Wildlife. Clay directs some of Defenders’ work on incentives to enhance ecosystems and prevent harm. This includes identifying incentive programs that currently work well as well as analysis of ways to improve agriculture programs and other programs to achieve measurable ecosystem outcomes.

Contact the author

Leave a Reply

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.