The American aesthetic is tied to cowboy boots. That means not just boots made of tanned cowhide, but also those made from the skin of the American alligator. For more than a century, Americans have obsessed over alligator for everything from fashion accessories to the animal's meat. We love alligators so much we nearly hunted them to extinction, landing the animal on the endangered species list from 1967 to 1987.
But starting in the 1980s, Americans figured out how to balance our love of all things gator with the species' own welfare. Louisiana led the way by getting private landowners, alligator hunters and farmers, and conservationists all on the same page. The result is a market for alligator byproducts that doesn't threaten alligators' existence.
In California, however, the alligator trade ends on January 1. A new state ban on the sale and import of alligator and crocodile products will make it a misdemeanor to sell gator products. The law is part of a slew of new animal-related bans in California set to be enacted in coming years. New regulations will also prohibit pet stores from selling dogs or cats that aren't rescued from shelters or adoption centers, as well as ban fur sales and foie gras, a traditional French delicacy that's developed by over-feeding ducks and geese to enlarge their livers.
For the domestic alligator industry, which spans across the nation's southeastern sector, from North Carolina to Texas' Rio Grande River, California's ban could jeopardize an industry that actually protects alligators, advocates say. The Golden State makes up roughly 30 percent of the world's alligator skin market, with Beverly Hills its epicenter. Louisiana, meanwhile, is the nation's leading producer of alligator products. California's ban will hurt the fashionistas on Rodeo Drive and conservationist farmers in the bayou, as well as other state's alligator industries.
Louisiana officials say California's ban is unconstitutional. In fact, California banned the sale of alligator skins and meats in 1970, but has opted to repeatedly renew an exemption, says Cole Garrett, an attorney for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The exemption was most recently renewed in 2014. This year, despite comments from industry officials, it wasn't.
Proponents of the ban, including the Defenders of Wildlife, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity, applauded California lawmakers' decision. They argue the ban will help discourage illegal poaching and trade.
But Louisiana and other gator-centric businesses are fighting back. Earlier this month, the businesses that "represent every step in the chain of commerce for alligator" filed a lawsuit opposing the ban in the Eastern District of California. "Indeed, irreparable harms are already taking effect in anticipation of the impending trade ban, including canceled orders, lost business transactions and sales, and halted or dramatically curtailed production," the complaint says. "Other imminent irreparable harms include liquidated inventories, 'fire sales' of products, job eliminations, cancellations of entire business lines, dissolutions of businesses, and potential relocation of several California plaintiffs outside the state."
Within days of the industry lawsuit, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry filed a separate lawsuit challenging California's ban in the same federal court. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), the agency that oversees the state's $80 million per-year alligator industry. The lawsuit notes that the alligator trade has received support from conservationists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species experts. "California has nevertheless attempted to destroy the market for American alligator products notwithstanding the fact that no such alligators live in California," the lawsuit says.
"When one states decides to take their ball and go home, that has implications throughout the nation," Garrett says. "While the other state's rights argument is one, that is why we do have a federal government and there are some regulations that kind of keep things within reason and on an even playing field."
The LWDF has been integral in recovery of the American alligator species, Louisiana officials argue. Despite the fact that 1 million wild alligators and 6 million farmed gators have been slaughtered since the 1970s—for meat, skins, teeth—Louisiana's alligator population is actually booming as it currently stands, and has been for decades. According to the state, the past two nest counts have produced the highest alligator tallies in decades. In the wild, there are roughly 2 million animals today, says Amity Bass, a biologist at the LDWF. On farms, there are about 900,000 animals. "We went from, in the late '60s, early '70s, having animals in the thousands, and now having them in the millions—they're doing quite well," Bass says.
Animal rights advocates admit the species' population has rebounded in recent years. "However, other crocodilian species, which include alligators, caimans, crocodiles and gharials, have not been as lucky," writes Elly Pepper, a wildlife advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a blog post for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Continuing to allow for a legal trade in crocodilian parts, even if limited, will put another nail in the coffin for these species by exacerbating the parallel illegal trade in these products." The species' likeness in the appearance of their hide and other products makes it almost impossible to tell them apart, she notes.
That may be true, Bass says, but it's not accurate as it relates to Louisiana's rigorous regulation of the industry, such as the tagging system that complies with Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. When a gator is harvested, Louisiana requires the harvester to affix a state-licensed tag, as well as a CITES tag that denotes its origin. "So we know each animal that was harvested, where it came from, the metrics on it," Bass says. "When that hide is tanned, before it is shipped, our staff expect each and every single hide and account for it. So the possibility for fraud, I would say, is barely miniscule."
Neither is it an issue that's solely related to jobs, as the business groups' lawsuit might suggest. If the ban goes into effect, Louisiana's lawsuit notes that the state's private "landowners will be forced to greatly reduce or cease their erosion control efforts"—which they do to protect alligator environs—"because they will be unable to economically sustain those efforts, resulting in irreparable harm to their property as well as harm to Louisiana's sovereign environmental interests in wetland preservation."
Roughly 90 percent of the Louisiana land on which alligators are raised is privately owned, Bass estimates, meaning private landowners are a major focus of the state's wildlife management efforts. "The industry has absolutely helped that," she continues. "The funds from the income of alligators helps to provide incentives for wetland conservation and management here in coastal Louisiana. The incomes derived from [those efforts] help us to manage the species effectively, because our agency is involved in every aspect of alligators, from the egg out on the landscape up until it's shipped out of state."
Louisiana state officials not only set the number of alligators that can be harvested on each citizen's private property, they also have rules for how many eggs can be harvested off of a property—a large source of their income, Bass says—based on the habitat and acreage. An agreement is made with the farmer for a set amount of money for the farmer to collect the eggs. The farmer then takes the eggs, hatches them on his farm, and returns at least 10 percent of what hatched back onto that property. It's a beneficial system for both species and landowner, Bass says. "What they're putting back are animals they've had in captivity for a year," she continues. "They grow larger, have a better chance of survival. So it's really helping to boost the population. I think that's an important part, too."
If you take the system away, advocates argue, you're taking away the economic incentive of having a dangerous animal on your property. Without the incentive, the population will almost undoubtedly decline. "Economic incentives are a very powerful reason to protect species and habitats," says Richard Thomas, a spokesperson for the group TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, in an email. He gives the analogous example of the harvesting of Toco Toucan chicks by indigenous Paraguayan communities. After CITES banned the export of the species, the economic option was no longer available for the families on the community land on which the toucan nests. Instead, the communities replaced their income source with charcoal made from trees. "Of course, charcoal can only be harvested and sold once," Thomas says. "This was surely an unintended, but in retrospect, rather unsurprising consequence of the ban."
While this might seem, from a distance, like red state versus blue, liberal versus conservative, Bass doesn't see it that way. "I think a lot of it is based, perhaps, off an emotional reaction," she says. "Alligators, not only is it an economic thing here in our state, it's also a cultural icon as well, and a lot of people making a living off alligators." Animal rights activists, meanwhile, prefer prohibition over balancing the rights and welfare of people and critters.
For Bass and other members of Louisiana gator's communities, California's new law stands to undermine a major ecological accomplishment. "I don't know of other examples that are comparable, where not only have we recovered a species that was in danger, we've helped to create an industry around it. That industry helps to support conservation of the species."