Bug smugglers?

December 1994, from [WWW]Kenelm W. Philip of the Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, printed in [WWW]Flea News Volume 49:

Aside from the dangers involved in field trips to remote parts of the world, the life of a museum entomologist used to be fairly tame. However, in 1981 all that changed. An obscure law called the Lacey Act was updated - and museum entomologists now lead complicated, and possibly dangerous, lives. What does the Lacey Act do? It makes it a federal crime, punishable by a $150,000 fine, to import, export, or take across a state line, any wildlife which was originally obtained in violation of any foreign, U.S. federal, state or Indian tribal law that protects wildlife. In 1981, the definition of 'wildlife' was expanded to include the entire animal kingdom. (Wild plants indigenous to the U.S. which are listed under CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] or protected under state law are also covered).

For example, collecting an insect, even a mosquito or a cockroach in a National Park or National Wildlife Refuge without a permit, and then taking the specimen to another state, is a violation of the Lacey Act. Note as well that 'wildlife' includes any part of an organism (blood, DNA, etc.).

Many foreign countries have requirements for permits to take scientific specimens out of the country. The Lacey Act means it is now a U.S. federal crime to fail to comply with these permit rules - and ignorance is no excuse. A number of Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement agents in the lower 48 [states] have stated that the Lacey Act is retroactive in the following sense: if a museum has a 100-year old insect specimen that was originally (for example) taken from a foreign country without the requisite permit, that specimen is now in violation of the Lacey Act. Most major museums in the country have numerous specimens that have suddenly become contraband.

All this is bad enough - but then the Fish and Wildlife Service got into the act by promulgating its own regulations. In order to bring scientific insect specimens into the U.S., or take them out of the U.S., the researcher now has to fill out F&WS Form 3-177. This form was originally designed for use by commercial importers of wildlife materials and products. It requires the importer/exporter to list every species of animal in the shipment, and the number of individuals of each species.

Museum entomologists may return from a field trip with several thousand specimens, or even tens of thousands of specimens - and many, sometimes most, of these will probably be undetermined. You are allowed to bring in undetermined material - provided that you re-file Form 3-177 every 180 days until all the material has been determined to species! In many groups of insects it may take years, or even decades, to determine to species every specimen in even a small collection, so Form 3-177 amounts to a serious paperwork burden to any museum whose staff is actively working on foreign material.

Failure to file the form makes you guilty of smuggling. Fortunately most F&WS enforcement agents will make exceptions to the Form 3-177 requirement in cases where the material cannot be enumerated (as for the millions of organisms present in soil samples). Travelers who have picked up diseases in foreign parts do not have to inventory their microorganisms.

Other consequences of these F&WS regulations are: entomologists are being told that imported/exported specimens may not be sent through the mail, and that all imports and exports of specimens must take place through a limited number (nine) of official Ports of Entry. Packages of insect specimens are being opened and 'inspected' by people with no entomological training and no appreciation of how fragile such specimens are. Some foreign museums are considering refusing to lend material (especially type specimens) until the rules change.

Recently proposed changes in the F&WS regulations would add a provision that importing eight or more similar specimens would create the presumption of commercial use! A reported conversation with the author of this provision indicated that eight beetles would be considered 'similar' regardless of how many species (or families) were involved.

One of the major ways that the insect collection at the National Museum of Natural History grows is through donations of private collections. The NMNH has announced a new policy for donations: all specimens must be accompanied by copies of all relevant collecting permits or by written evidence that no such permits were required. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is requiring similar documentation on all specimens sent to them from foreign countries for determination.

These laws and regulations are seriously impeding taxonomic and other work on insects and other 'lower' organisms, at the exact time that research on biodiversity is becoming of critical importance. The laws passed by well-meaning individuals, in a climate of opinion that has been affected by concern for the environment (and possibly by animal-rights groups) - with absolutely no understanding of the way insects and other lower organisms differ from vertebrates. Scientific collecting is no danger to insect populations! The fecundity of insects is so high that sheer destruction of habitat and competition from introduced species are the only factors of any importance for species survival.

What should we do about this situation? The only hope for the future of entomological research is to get the Lacey Act, and the requirements for Form 3-177, changed so that for insects and other lower organism only threatened and endangered species are covered. The original Lacey Act even had a sentence beginning: "Nothing in this subsection shall restrict the importation of dead natural-history specimens for museums or for scientific collections ...", which seems to have been forgotten.

Life on earth rests on lower organisms. We could vanish and life would go on - but if insects vanish we will all vanish with them. Research on insects needs to be untrammeled, for our own good. As far as biodiversity research goes, the current regulations amount to shooting oneself in the foot.


In September 1995, Philip updated the situation: the Fisheries and Wildlife Service is revising regulation to make it easier for scientists to import and export museum specimens. The basic problems of the Lacey Act remain, but some of the worst features are being changed.