Judge Pauses California Ban on Sale of Alligator and Crocodile Skins

(AP Photo/Andre Penner)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California retailers won a temporary reprieve this week from a statewide ban on the sale of products made from alligator and crocodile skins.  

A federal judge issued an injunction barring the state from enforcing a law that criminalizes sale and importation of alligator and crocodile parts in California.

Shopkeepers throughout the state joined forces with alligator farmers in a 2019 lawsuit, claiming the law will decimate the alligator skin trade and drive them out of business. U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller issued a temporary restraining order in December, preventing the ban from taking effect on its scheduled date of Jan. 1, 2020.

Mueller’s latest ruling issued Tuesday went a step further, finding the ban preempted by the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The question is not which policy better protects animals, but whether state or federal law controls. Although California has its own interest in protecting animals, the reach of that interest ends where the preemptive effect of federal law begins,” Mueller wrote.

Mueller’s ruling is not the first of its kind. In 1979, a federal judge in California blocked then-Gov. Jerry Brown from enforcing a prohibition on the American alligator trade in Fouke Co. v. Brown because of federal ESA preemption. 

The California Legislature lifted the ban in 2006, but added a sunset provision that would reinstate it in 2010, once again making the importation and sale of alligator and crocodile parts illegal. Several amendments deferred the sunset provision until Jan. 1, 2020.

According to court documents, California comprises 30% of retail sales for luxury leather goods. In declarations filed with the court, Beverly Hills retailers bemoaned the complete liquidation of their inventories and forced relocation out of California. 

The effect of the ban extends beyond swanky boutiques. Hard-hit alligator farmers implored Mueller to put a stop to the law, noting that the once-endangered American alligator has recovered due to Louisiana’s sustainable egg-harvesting program.

“Alligators are a renewable natural resource. By placing an economic value on alligators, landowners are offered incentives to not only conserve wetlands but also enhance them, and ultimately increase alligator populations,” said Stephen Sagrera, president of the Louisiana Alligator Farmers and Ranchers Association, in a declaration. 

The state also participates in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a permit system that requires each harvested animal to be tagged with a special serial number to keep track of alligator and crocodile populations. 

Farmers must also release 10% of their farm-raised alligators and enter into strictly-regulated contracts with landowners to collect their eggs, further bolstering conservation efforts by providing an incentive to protect the Louisiana wetlands and ensuring a sustainable population. 

Sagrera said alligator farmers also provide steady jobs and good wages in rural areas where such opportunities are scarce, but many association members have said they will have to lay off workers should the California ban take effect.

Mueller said she weighed those hardships when making her ruling. 

“It appears there would be no way to remedy after the fact the harms plaintiff would suffer without an injunction,” she wrote.

In a phone interview, the plaintiffs’ attorney David Frulla praised Mueller’s ruling.

“I think we very much appreciate that the judge recognized the economic concerns involved and also that there is a sustainability regime built into trade for alligators and crocodiles,” Frulla said.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office did not respond for an email seeking comment Wednesday.

Mueller consolidated the retailers’ and farmers’ lawsuit with a separate challenge brought by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission. 

In an email, commission president Bill Hogan said, “We are encouraged by the court’s decision. We know this is the first step and not the last. But, it gives Louisiana’s vital alligator industry the ability to continue operating in California and beyond.”

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