One of the earliest federal conservation laws in the United States is also one of the most powerful legal tools we have against modern threats to biodiversity.
The Lacey Act was signed into law by the federal government in 1900, under President McKinley, to stem illegal hunting. By the end of the 19th century, commercial hunting practices included the mass shooting of shorebirds, ducks, and mammals like deer and bison. Newly built railroads could then bring the wild meats to big city markets. Wildlife populations had decline precipitously when the Lacey Act was enacted to correct the situation. One of the first prosecutions was the 1901 charging of members of an Illinois trading ring for shipping over 22,000 birds, mostly quail, grouse, and ducks.
The Lacey Act prohibits:
- Shipping or transporting fish, wildlife & plants obtained illegally across state lines (Illegally obtained species include those covered by state or tribal, domestic or foreign law)
- The importation of nuisance species such as pests and invasive species
An amendment in 1935 included wildlife obtained in violation of foreign law, and a 1981 amendment extended protection to plants and fish. Violation of the Lacey Act is a federal crime that can lead to fines up to $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organizations, and up to five years in prison.
A Modern Tool for the Protection of Biodiversity
International trade has more than tripled since 1980, and with it there has been an increase in traffic for plants and wildlife parts. Increased demand has led to high prices fetched for luxury items like ivory, caviar, furs, rare orchids, coral, and snake hides. The same can be said for exotic pets and pseudo-medicinal products such as tiger bone or rhino horn, contributing to the Black Rhinoceros’ critically endangered status. The Lacey Act is used by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as well as State agencies to dissuade the unsustainable harvest and trade of protected species. For example, in 2009 New York State concluded Operation Shellshock after three years investigating the trade of native turtles, snakes, and salamanders. Twenty-seven people have been charged. Other recent high profile prosecutions using the Lacey Act include cases against Gibson Guitars and Lumber Liquidators. These companies imported exotic woods like ebony and Russian birch, which prosecutors claimed were obtained illegally.
The Lacey Act has been used to prevent the import and transportation of invasive species listed as harmful to people, agriculture, or to native wildlife. Invasive species can have costly consequences. For example, zebra and quagga mussels originally from the Black and Caspian Seas have transformed fish habitat and fouled water intakes in many North American freshwater lakes. The Lacey Act can help prevent the spread of invasive species, but only by maintaining an updated list of invasive species and providing adequate surveillance and enforcement.
Recently the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced the inclusion of four large snake species on the invasive species list kept under the Lacey Act, including the Burmese python and the yellow anaconda.
What Can I do?
- When hunting and fishing, understand and abide by the current rules for the state and management zone you are in, and pay particular attention to the rules governing the transportation of your catch.
- Bringing back souvenirs such as taxidermy or coral from trips abroad can be tempting, but it can violate the Lacey Act and other wildlife law. Consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Office.
- Prior research is also important before purchasing plant or wildlife parts for any purpose, including exotic pets. The orchid you buy from the nursery at the local big box store is probably fine, but what about internet purchases from more obscure dealers? A legitimate dealer will be able to provide you, upon request, with copies of valid permits and licenses.
Dean, Mark, Bank of England. Accessed January 21, 2014. Why has world trade grown faster than world output?
New York Conservation Officers Association. Accessed January 21, 2014. Operation Shellshock.
New York Times. Accessed January 21, 2014. Gibson Guitar to Pay 350,000 in Penalties and Lose Seized Tropical Hardwood.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Accessed January 21, 2014. Nation Marks Lacey Act Centennial, 100 Years of Federal Wildlife Law Enforcement.
World Resources Institute. Accessed January 21, 2014. Lumber Liquidators Raid Shows Companies Need to Heed U.S. Lacey Act.