FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE:

How the pet industry beat the sequester

Turns out, sequestration can be beat.

And while air traffic controllers learned that today in a high-profile vote on Capitol Hill that reversed furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, or PIJAC, has known that fact for well over a month.

During the group's annual conference this week, some PIJAC leaders took time out to discuss how a targeted lobbying campaign, which didn't make many headlines, helped overturn a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to suspend overtime and weekend inspections of commercial wildlife imports and exports.

At a time when Obama administration officials have gone out of their way to highlight the inflexible nature of the sequester, PIJAC's ability to get overtime and weekend inspections reinstated is notable. But what may be even more impressive is the speed in which the reversal happened.

In general, commercial wildlife shipments imported or exported from the United States have to be shipped through one of 18 FWS-designated ports and cleared by service inspectors.

On March 11, FWS sent out a notice, blaming the new inspection restrictions on the mandatory budget cuts that went into effect March 1.

"To reduce expenditures for the remainder of FY 2013, the Service ... has suspended all overtime activities (including those at ports of entry)," the bulletin reads.

Four days later, a second notice was released, announcing that overtime inspection requests would be accommodated.

FWS had no comment this week on the reversal, referring questions to its March 15 notice.

That bulletin noted that, because overtime is funded by importers and exporters, the service would continue to inspect and clear shipments.

"Requests for overtime inspection services will be accommodated to the maximum extent possible in order to protect wildlife and reduce the burden on the trade," the bulletin says.

But the story of the reversal is much more interesting than that, PIJAC officials say.

When the sequester hit, FWS's share of the budget reduction amounted to $64 million this fiscal year.

FWS's Office of Law Enforcement -- which houses the wildlife inspection program -- took several steps to contribute to the reductions. A hiring freeze was instituted, and the office decided to forgo bringing on a new class of FWS special agents this year. Currently, the office has 218 special agents, well below its authorized level of 261. FWS also has 136 wildlife inspectors and 16 vacancies that will not be filled while the sequester is in place. In addition, a general overtime work ban was put in place.

But the decision to suspend overtime work for commercial wildlife inspections as part of the sequester came as a surprise to the pet industry.

And it also didn't seem to make financial sense for the government.

"Importers and exporters of live animals for the pet industry actually pay premium fees to compensate the officers that do these after-hour and weekend inspections," PIJAC President and CEO Mike Canning said this week. "They actually make revenue from the fees that are paid."

And the fees can be substantial. Along with standard wildlife inspection fees of $186 per shipment, overtime and weekend inspection fees are at least $105.

According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, from 2005 to 2009 an average of about 24 million individual wildlife imports -- including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans and insects -- were regulated by FWS each year, along with another 194 million individual fish per year.

With many international flights arriving and departing after hours or on weekends, the overtime fees add up.

Marshall Meyers, PIJAC's senior adviser who helped coordinate the industry response, said in an interview that one particular importer he knows who is based out of Los Angeles spent more than $125,000 on overtime inspection fees in 2012.

But Canning said the PIJAC members were less concerned about the financial cost of the FWS decision than they were about animal care.

FWS chief's office 'flooded with phone calls'

If it was just about money, the odds were that the animals would have eventually been inspected and cleared at some point, and perhaps for less cost, because the importers and exporters wouldn't have had to pay the overtime fees, he said.

But "it was an animal care issue to have live animals that are going to end up in American households as pets sitting somewhere and potentially being harmed," Canning said.

For example, when lizards and snakes are shipped, they travel in heated containers. But the heat source -- usually hot rocks or some chemical that has a heated reaction -- only works for a limited time. If one such container had to sit over a weekend, FWS officials might find themselves inspecting a carton full of dead snakes come Monday.

And it's not hard to imagine how such a situation could easily become a public relations nightmare for the service.

"Because animal care is such a big issue with the pet industry, we contacted a bunch of people and the word spread that to save these animals or make sure they are properly cared for, many more people got active in the process," Canning said.

Meyers, who has represented the pet industry in various roles for more than 40 years, actually coordinated the educational effort from halfway around the world. He got word about the March 11 notice while attending a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora in Bangkok.

Along with blasting out emails to importers, exporters, the zoo community and the pet product industry, Meyers also had the opportunity to lobby FWS directly. FWS Director Dan Ashe was at the same CITES meeting, leading a delegation from the service.

"I talked to the U.S. delegation," Meyers said. And Ashe's office and the FWS law enforcement office in Arlington, Va., were "flooded with phone calls."

Meyers said he also reached out to Capitol Hill and encouraged industry officials to contact their members of Congress.

But the reversal came so quickly that he doesn't think any of the congressional offices had time to do much. Meyers believes FWS law enforcement officials simply didn't think through the ramifications before releasing their March 11 notice.

But if there was a bright spot in the four-day saga, Meyers said it was the reaction of the inspectors on the ground at the ports. Those people were extremely sympathetic to the position that wildlife importers and exporters were briefly put in, he said, and they tried to be as helpful as they could, considering the circumstances.

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