Louisiana alligator growers pleased with California reptile ruling

John DeSantis/Special to Houma Courier

Louisiana alligator farmers, tanners and others in the industry are welcoming a federal court ruling which states that California cannot ban the sales or importing of alligator products.

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller granted judgment Monday in a 25-page decision, whose plaintiffs also included alligator industry components in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Montana, and Wyoming, as well as California luxury retailers and tradespeople.

“This court ruling is a huge victory for Louisiana, hard-working citizens in the alligator industry, and Louisiana’s wetlands,” said Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, whose office represented the state’s interests in the suit leading to the ruling. “California’s ban would have completely disrupted the entire supply chain – not only decimating the industry and our wetland protection programs but also removing over $100 million from Louisiana’s annual economy.”

An alligator swims in the waters of Bayou Terrebonne in Bourg.

The decision is a major step toward ending a decades-long dispute on the matter, highlighted by a 2015 ban in California of “import into the state for commercial purposes, to possess with intent to sell, or to sell within the state, the dead body, or any part or product thereof, of an alligator or crocodilian species.”

The law was amended to include other reptiles and mammals; enforcement was to be delayed until 2020. In 2019 suit was filed in federal court to overturn the law. The plaintiffs maintained that because trade relating to alligators is controlled by federal law, California has no authority to bar them from commerce.

“The issue we litigated was the precise question of the law’s constitutionality,” said David Frulla, an attorney with the Washington D.C. firm of Kelley, Drye & Warren, who represents the plaintiffs.

The issue is not yet totally resolved – the judge still must oversee a final resolution.

But the plaintiffs see that matter as involving more formality than substance.

“We do have a couple of innings left,” Frulla said, using a double sports analogy. “It’s like being ahead 35 points at the end of the third quarter in a football game.”

Among arguments furthered by the plaintiffs was that proper management of the species depends on a robust trade in skins, used for novelties, watchbands, apparel, and footwear.

An alligator is nestled within flora near Bayou Blue in Terrebonne Parish.

“I do think a lot of craftspeople and tradespeople who dealt in higher-end leather products moved away from California because of the restrictions,” said Clint Hebert, sales manager at Mark Statton LLC in Lafayette, a company that sells skins and artisan pieces.

“In particular I think that’s the case with exotics, which is where your higher-end clientele is going to be. We are glad Attorney General Landry took up the call to step in and stop California from going further with a full ban.”

Landry is not the first ranking Louisiana official to be involved with the California controversy. The late Gov. Kathleen Blanco attempted to get assurances from the Golden State in 2006 that the original ban would be allowed to sunset, as alligators had rebounded, but the issue remained unsettled.

One of the concerns California lawmakers had was that reptilian species other than American alligators that were endangered, such as some breeds of crocodiles, could still face dwindling numbers due to poachers, because of skin similarities.

Hebert is hopeful that the legal development will open new markets out west.

“Opening up any kind of a market is good,” Hebert said. “People will have to re-establish a clientele that would want these things and for them to make products for us. The recovery rate will take some time but there are enough talented people that are makers in California.

Thomas Fletcher, who operates the Utopia Gator Farm in Matthews, was overjoyed upon hearing news of the judge’s decision.

“That makes sense,” said Fletcher, who no longer farms gators in the way or at the volume he once did, but still raises hatchlings for sale in the marketplace. “It’s fantastic. When I was farming I put up a lot of money to fight this law in California and it’s been a long battle.”