Guns and Gear

Texas hunting ranchers fight for right to save African antelope species

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A court case filed by one animal rights group may cause three endangered species to become extinct.

The three species of African antelope — the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax and the dama gazelle — are already nearly extinct in their native Africa. But they are thriving on the plains of Texas, mostly on ranches where hunters pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of hunting them.

For decades this practice has meant roughly 10 percent of the herd on any given ranch is culled annually, with the proceeds allowing the ranchers to continue to feed and breed these animals.

But animal rights activists generally oppose all hunting, including hunts on exotic game ranches. They have successfully sued to have it stopped, and now the ranchers are faced with a dilemma: How do they continue to support animals which they have no economic reason to keep, but are prohibited from killing?

Since 2005 an exemption to the Endangered Species Act has allowed ranchers to raise the three species, and hunters to stalk them, without a special permit. In all, Texas ranchers had about 1,800 of the animals in 2004. With the exemption in place, those numbers swelled to more than 17,000 by 2011.

CBS News aired a “60 Minutes” feature story about the controversy on Jan. 29. Priscilla Feral, president of the animal rights group Friends of Animals, told correspondent Lara Logan that she has waged a seven-year legal battle to get the exemption overturned.

Feral won. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a new regulation, scheduled to go into effect on April 4.

On that date, the agency says, “the three antelope species will be treated the same as all other captive-bred endangered species in the United States. Individuals in the United States who possess these three antelope species and wish to carry out otherwise prohibited activities, including interstate or foreign commerce, import, export, culling or other forms of take, must obtain a permit or other authorization from the Service.”

Addax on a Texas game ranch (Christian Mungall, courtesy of
Kyle Wildlife LP and the Exotic Wildlife Association)

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman told The Daily Caller that the permitting process is neither difficult nor expensive, and said her office is moving to expedite the permitting process for the ranchers.

The ranchers disagree.

Exotic Wildlife Association executive director Charly Seale, a game rancher himself, told TheDC that while the permitting process is not particularly expensive — just a few hundred dollars — it involves a difficult and lengthy process.

“It’s not expensive. It is arduous,” he said. “One permit is seven pages, the other is two pages. Under perfect conditions where every ‘T’ is crossed and every ‘I’ dotted it’s taking six months to get the permits.

“This is our private property,” he insisted. “We shouldn’t have to fill out even a half-page permit to do what we want with our property.”

Petitioning the government is just the beginning. In a time when animal rights groups are increasingly litigious and vocal — and, some say, dangerous — permit applicants’ personal information is also made public.

“You have to put your full name and address on them,” Seale said. “They put you in a registry where every animal rights wacko out there knows who you are.”

Darren LaSorte, who manages government affairs issues for the National Rifle Association, agreed that hunters’ safety is bound to be a problem when the government publicizes their names and addresses. The first hunter who took a wolf when hunting was reopened in Montana, he said, had “animal rights wackos bombard” him with threats.

The government maintains that the Friends of Animals court case forced its hand, but LaSorte said it was nothing of the kind.

“We believe they could have waited until the appellate case ran its course,” he told TheDC. “Knowing that this was going to be appealed, they should have waited until the appellate court had its say.”

According to LaSorte, the case has at stake “a multi-billion dollar industry and the fate of three species.”

It’s likely not an exaggeration. Those three species number only a few hundred in protected reserves in their native lands, making the Texas herds their most robust numbers anywhere.

Seale said the Exotic Wildlife Association is now suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a regional exemption to the Endangered Species Act. He said the hunting organization was forced to sue after the government flatly refused to respond to a request for the exemption within the required 90-day window.

He doesn’t understand why game ranchers’ plans to manage the species are suddenly no longer acceptable. “They thought enough of our process in 2005 to agree with it,” he said.

Dama gazelles lying down at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
The zoo has nine of the animals. Texas ranchers have nearly 900.
(Eric Kilby / Flickr / Creative common

Congressional action is also in the works. With April fast approaching, Texas Republican Reps. John Carter and Pete Sessions are both considering legislation aimed at overturning the new rule.

Carter Spokesman John Stone told The Daily Caller that his office is in talks with Fish and Wildlife about the best way to handle the situation. In addition to the question of what will become of the endangered species, as many as 14,000 jobs may be on the line.

“Right now we’re working with Fish and Wildlife on ‘how do we do this?'” he said. “There’s people at Fish and Wildlife who agree with us.”

Stone noted that while the government agency says the forms are easy to fill out and the process is hardly arduous, “You look at the actual forms and it says a different thing.”

The application forms, he said, are open to interpretation. While Fish and Wildlife says it will interpret them in a way that streamlines the process, they don’t have to.

“It’s all a matter of interpretation,” Stone said. “What we’d like to do is go back to the 2005 rules. What we’re prepared to do is introduce legislation to go back to the 2005 rule.”

“The end goal is the same, just to overturn the [Fish and Wildlife Service] memo.”

Seale said his group is working with ranchers to reintroduce the scimitar-horned oryx back to its native habitat, but without an economic incentive to keep the animals around that won’t be possible.

“We want to put them back over there and make them a sustainable resource,” he said. “Hunting is the management tool we use to control the population.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service agrees that hunting has been a successful management practice for more than a century. Permits, bag limits and federal excise taxes used to fund state fish and game agencies were all instituted in the late 19th century, largely at the urging of hunters who were concerned about entire species disappearing.

LaSorte said the government’s plan is just another example of federal overreach.

“This is an example of the Endangered Species Act needing a complete overhaul,” he said, adding that game ranchers in Texas have “been left to their own devices and it’s worked well.”

“The original exemption was written for a reason. U.S. Fish and Wildlife realized they [the ranchers] were doing a great job.”

This Scimitar-horned oryx is a breeding herd sire on a Texas
game ranch (Elizabeth Cary Mungall, courtesy of
Kyle Wildlife LP and the Exotic Wildlife Association)

Meanwhile, Feral told “60 minutes” that she would rather see the animals extinct than hunted — at least in Texas.

If the animals existed only to be hunted, Logan asked her, would she rather they not exist at all?

“Not in Texas, no,” Feral replied, later adding, “The future for oryxes is Africa. It’s not Texas.”

Logan pressed her on the point. “Can the future not be both? Don’t they have a greater chance of survival the more of them there are?”

“In their native lands,” Feral replied.

“I don’t think you can say regardless of where they are,” the animal rights activist said. ” A Texas hunting ranch is not the same as being in a reserve in Senegal.”

LaSorte said this sentiment is fairly typical among hard-line animal rights activists, but it’s usually hidden instead of being articulated so plainly.

“You don’t often actually hear them say ‘we’d rather have all of them dead than have a few of them hunted’,” he said.

Ray Dockery manages the White Point Ranch, a hunting ranch that has a herd of oryx. White Point allows only “fair chase” hunts, meaning that there is no guarantee of a hunter making a kill.

Dockery told TheDC that the case isn’t really about the antelopes, but about hunting in general.

“It’ll be into whitetail [deer] next,” he said. “It’ll be into every animal we’ve got if they win one case.”

According to Dockery, the price of hunting an oryx has already dropped. Last year a hunt brought $2,500. It’s now just $1,500.

“It’ll just cut the market down to nothing,” Dockery said. “The value of them is just going to go down to where they’re not going to be worth having.”

“I’ve sold a bunch of them because of this situation.”

Dockery noted that with Texas in the midst of a drought, the cost of feeding the animals is high enough that no rancher will keep them around without an economic incentive.

“It’s going to cause the animals to be … extinct because people are going to have to get rid of them,” he said in a telephone interview.

Dockery gave a disgusted grunt and added, “The bad part about it is, limiting the take here in the U.S. is never going to help the animals in Africa.”

“It’s not helping anything.”

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