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Texas ranchers fight to breed, hunt endangered antelope

April 03, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • A scimitar-horned oryx walks along a hillside on the Morani River Ranch in Uvalde County, Texas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is about to require ranchers to follow a federal permitting process that many ranchers say will destroy their hunting business and lead to the antelopes' decline.
A scimitar-horned oryx walks along a hillside on the Morani River Ranch… (Ron T. Ennis / Fort Worth…)

Houston — The scimitar-horned oryx was listed as endangered seven years ago, but a special exemption from the federal Endangered Species Act allowed breeders of the rare African antelope to nonetheless sell and hunt the animals -- at $5,500 a head. As a result, herds grew exponentially on exotic hunting ranches nationwide, especially in Texas.

That exemption for the oryx and two other African antelopes popular with Texas hunters, the addax and the dama gazelle, could disappear Wednesday unless a federal judge approves a last-minute appeal by ranchers for an injunction.

“It’s our private property. We bought these animals, we have propagated these animals and conserved them,” Charly Seale, executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Assn., told The Times. The Ingram, Texas-based group, which claims nearly 5,000 members, filed for the injunction from a federal judge in Washington, D.C.

The ranchers’ battle to maintain their antelope herds began years ago, when a Connecticut-based animal rights group sued to overturn the  exemption.

Ranchers argue that they helped revive the rare species, noting that in 1979, Texas had fewer than three dozen captive-bred scimitar-horned oryx; as of 2010, it had more than 11,000. During the same time period, ranchers added, the number of captive-bred dama gazelles increased from nine to more than 800; the number of addax from two to more than 5,000.

But animal rights advocates at Friends of Animals, which has established a preserve for antelope in central Senegal, say the animals are not truly being conserved on Texas ranches.

“While ranchers and hunters might think that’s tantamount to conservation, we think that’s a hoax,” the group’s president, Priscilla Feral, told The Times. “They’re breeding those antelopes, they’re selling them and killing them and calling it conservation. You live a year or two before your head’s blown off -- the Endangered Species Act wasn’t created for that.”

A federal judge found in favor of the Darien, Conn.-based group three years ago, ruling that anyone who wants to hunt or transport the endangered antelopes needs a federal permit — anathema to many Texas breeders. In January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upheld the ruling.

So far, only 58 people have applied for federal permits to register the antelopes, 52 to hunt them, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the Austin American-Statesman. All but one of the applications were from Texas.

Most breeders cannot afford to keep their herds without charging fees to hunt the animals; rather than apply for federal permits, they've focused on fighting the rules change, Seale said.

“They do not want government intrusion into their lives,” he said.

Seale’s group wants their animals removed from the endangered species list, on which he says captive-bred antelope do not belong. He noted that similar efforts to de-list other species have succeeded across the country; some populations of gray wolves were removed from the list last year.

Several Texas officials have supported the effort to block the rules change.

Last week, Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples submitted friend of the court briefs opposing the change. Abbott noted in a statement that the “burdensome new regulation” from the federal government" threatens the economic viability of Texas' exotic game ranches and the continued preservation of these rare animals.”

“Leave it to the federal government to create a problem where one doesn’t exist,” Staples said. “All Americans should withstand overly burdensome and unnecessary regulations, and protect the rights of private citizens who have responsibly promoted the conservation of these exotic species.”

Seale said he's sold his nearly two dozen oryx. He's convinced that, if Friends of Animals succeeds in blocking the exemption, the group will continue to try to remove more exotic animals from Texas' private hunting ranches.

“Once they get a foothold, they’re not going to stop with these three animals. It’s a ripple effect,” Seale said. “Like a sheep-killing dog — they get a taste of blood and there’s no way to stop them.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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