Speaking Of Exotics – Does New Rule Threaten The Future Of Some Exotic Antelope?
April 5, 2012
Speaking of exotics… a new ruling by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has the exotics ranchers and hunters up in arms. A ruling against the USFWS has removed the loophole that allowed unrestricted breeding and hunting of three endangered species… the scimitar-horned oryx, the dama gazelle, and the addax.
There have been several articles about the ruling, and they painted a pretty grim picture using comments such as “ban on hunting” and “threatens the survival of the species”. The argument is that if the ranchers can no longer run hunts, then they won’t be able to afford to continue the management and breeding programs, and will let the herds die off until they’re gone.
That seemed pretty extreme, so I had to do a little digging to get the whole story. This may get a little long, but I really think it’s worth reading. If you don’t want to read what I’ve got to say, you can jump to the Federal Register to read the USFWS summary.
In 2005, the USFWS added three species of African antelope to the Endangered Species list. These were the dama gazelle, the addax, and the scimitar-horned oryx. At that point, the scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild, and the others were in dire straits.
At the same time, ranchers in Texas had been working to establish solid, huntable populations of these species on their properties with significant success… particularly with the oryx. According to the reports I’ve been reading, the oryx numbers went from a low of less than three-dozen in 1979 to a current population in the neighborhood of 11,000. Addax went from two in ’79 to around 5000 today. That’s not bad for an endangered animal.
Due to the success of these breeding and management programs, the USFWS allowed an exclusion under the ESA so that the ranchers could continue to run hunts on the endangered species, and to continue breeding programs. Hunters would pay pretty high-dollar for the opportunity to shoot one of these animals, and that money, in turn went into feeding, habitat, and breeding costs. To all appearances, the arrangement was working very well, and everyone seemed to be pretty happy about it.
Of course, “everyone” wasn’t all that happy. The animal rights organizations challenged the ESA exclusion over and over, and finally managed to push a lawsuit against the USFWS to fruition. The Service was forced to drop the exclusion, effective on April 4, 2012.
So, what does this mean to the ranchers, and more importantly, to these endangered antelope?
Well, first of all, let’s be absolutely clear. Dropping the exclusion does NOT equate to an outright ban on hunting the species or on breeding programs. There is a permitting process in place which enables the ranchers to continue to do what they’ve been doing. There are questions around the permits, and complaints that the process is too cumbersome and time consuming. Since I’m obviously not in a position to apply for the permit, I can’t validate those complaints. I have, however, gone over to the USFWS website to review the process and the rules.
If I’m reading the application correctly, it will take about four months to get an approved permit. The site says to allow 90 days for processing, and then the application must run for 30 days in the Federal Register prior to approval. That means that if a rancher wants to do management hunts, he needs to plan well in advance. At the very least, that’s an inconvenience. Exotics hunts are often planned on short notice.
It gets a little trickier, though, because the rancher/breeder must provide a justification for the application (e.g. management or cull hunt), and the approval process includes the opportunity for a challenge. The Friends of Animals organization has vowed to challenge every permit application, which potentially means that the approval timeline may get drawn out even more… or may even be rejected if the argument finds a sympathetic ear. The potential for subjectivity in the application process would worry me, if I were one of the ranchers impacted by all of this.
As you would expect, the exotics ranchers are pretty angry about this. Particularly in Texas, these folks are pretty independent and don’t take kindly to what they see as government intrusion into their private property rights. For most of them, they consider these animals to be their property and not subject to intervention by government agencies. There have been many threats of liquidating entire herds, turning them loose into the wild, or simply selling out and dropping their programs.
Nevertheless, a handful of the owners are trying to follow the new rules. There are complaints, but since the new rule only became official yesterday (April 4), it’s hard to say whether the complaints are valid, or if the new system will really have a negative impact on the overall longevity of the breeding and management programs.
In my opinion, it’s highly unlikely that the new ruling will have an extreme, negative impact on the survival of the three species, but I can see where some ranchers will choose to stop raising the endangered antelope. I can absolutely see where it’s going to be a thorn in the side of ranchers who are used to being able to manage the herds on their own terms, and the permitting process will probably get pretty onerous. Things are going to change, there’s no doubt, but I don’t think it means the end of the species… or even the end of hunting opportunities (although I’d bet the prices are going to go up).
For more direct information, take a look at the USFWS website. Among other good information, you can find a summary of the ruling, the Federal Register discussion of the ruling and its impacts, and links to the permit application, as well as a “cheat sheet” for completing the application.
By the way…
The hunt for these antelope isn’t just about trophies, although they are definitely unique and beautiful. By all accounts, the meat from all three species is sensational. Personally, I haven’t tried dama gazelle or addax, but I can vouch for the oryx. I found it similar to elk, although I think the flavor is better (most likely due to the oryx’s diet). The animal is about the same size as an elk as well, which means it provides a freezer-full of great-tasting protein!