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Judge: California cannot ban the import and sale of alligators

NEW ORLEANS — California cannot ban the importation and sale of crocodile and alligator products, a federal judge ruled in a victory for the state of Louisiana, which has challenged the ban along with businesses in several states.

Federal laws control trade in these products and prevent California from banning trade in them, Chief US District Judge Kimberly Mueller in Sacramento, Calif., wrote in a ruling Tuesday.

Mueller had already blocked enforcement of the law while lawsuits challenging it were being fought in her court. The plaintiffs included companies based in California, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Montana and Wyoming.

The California ban affected products made from alligators and two species of crocodiles – Nile and saltwater. All can be legally sold under international treaties and US federal laws.

Mueller dismissed arguments that California was only trying to regulate activities within the state. “California does not regulate crocodile fishing with its borders,” she wrote. “Nothing in the records indicates that crocodiles live in California, migrated to California, or were introduced to California.”

According to the court record, the Nile crocodile is listed as threatened and some species of saltwater crocodile are threatened or endangered.

The American alligator is no longer threatened or endangered — there are now an estimated 2.9 million in Louisiana in the wild or on farms — but it is treated as threatened because alligator produce can be difficult to distinguish from endangered alligator produce.

Louisiana argued in filing the lawsuit that the economy surrounding alligators has played a key role in the return of America’s alligator population and is an important factor in protecting wetlands and other species alongside alligators that depend on wetlands.

Louisiana said because most of the state’s coastal habitat is privately owned, the state has no direct control over how it is managed. But the alligator industry provides economic incentives for landowners to take steps to protect the swamplands that serve as alligator habitat.

Conservationists noted these similarities when arguing to keep California’s ban, saying that products from endangered and non-threatened species are so nearly identical that traffickers could easily disguise illegal products.

But Mueller, who was nominated for the bench by President Barack Obama in 2010, said federal laws and regulations governing how and when hides and other products derived from animals can be imported, exported and sold cannot be anticipated by California.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said Mueller’s ruling helps preserve the state’s successful efforts to protect alligators.

State officials have long believed that careful wildlife management, along with alligator farming, has led to a recovery in the state’s alligator population from fewer than 100,000 five decades ago. The State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimates the value of alligators harvested from the wild or farmed at $245 million a year.

“The alligator trade has led directly to the resurgence and conservation of the American alligator, as well as the protection and preservation of their natural wetland habitat,” Landry said in a news release Wednesday. “California’s ban would have completely disrupted the entire supply chain — not only decimated the industry and our wetland conservation programs, but also removed over $100 million from Louisiana’s annual economy.”

A California attorney did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.