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gator.jpgHigh-end California retailers are one signature away from continuing to stock their shelves with alligator belts and crocodile handbags -- for at least another five years.

Lawmakers sent Assembly Bill 2075 to the governor's desk Monday, again stalling a ban on the sale and importation of alligator parts, including skins and meat.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was known to wear a pair of gator-skin cowboy boots, signed legislation in 2006 that lifted a ban on the sale of alligator and crocodile parts. But because of a sunset clause, that ban was set to go back into effect on Jan. 1. With support from diverse set of interests -- the California Restaurant Association, Brooks Brothers and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu -- the Assembly voted to extend the sunset clause until 2020, pending the governor's approval. The original bill called for a 10-year extension but was watered down in the Senate.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, said letting the ban kick in would have a "chilling effect" on the economic activity associated with alligator sale.

"I assure you members that this bill will not bring you any crocodile tears," Alejo said.

Supporters of extending the sunset date argue that not doing so would have a devastating impact on California's economy, especially on the fashion industry, which often markets alligator accessories as high-end goods.

"Alligator products are a luxury item that is attractive and is part of the appeal of California's tourist industry, particularly in Beverly Hills," said Bill Dombrowski, president and CEO of the California Retailers Association. "The alligator is no longer an endangered species."

Dombrowski said the alligator trade provides environmental benefits, including wetland preservation.

The legislation faces opposition from conservation groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, which is concerned that consumers are unable to distinguish between skins from farm-raised alligators and endangered alligators caught in the wild.

Dombrowski rejects that claim, saying it is "not a justifiable argument against the product."
Because only a relatively small number of tanning factories produce the product, he said, it would be difficult for an endangered alligator species to slip through.

The Humane Society also argues that the law primarily benefits out-of-state interests, arguing in a statement that "there is evidence that wildlife laws are not sufficiently enforced in Louisiana."

Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the organization, said that when conservation and business have fought on the issue in the past, corporate interests have often prevailed in Assembly and Senate.

"When those parties have an interest that works in conflict with this policy, it looks like it's been approved by the Legislature," she said, noting that the sunset date has been extended before.

Still, Fearing said the Humane Society will continue to lobby against the legislation as the governor weighs whether to sign it. Although the group has not yet sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, Fearing said she plans to raise the issue at a pre-scheduled meeting with the governor's office on Monday.

"I intend to add this to the agenda," she said.

PHOTO: An alligator during a swamp tour on St. Martin Lake in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Lolita Jones/Dallas Morning News



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