INGRAM, Texas — An unusual exemption under the U.S. Endangered Species Act that's allowed the hunting of rare African antelope will change next week, and new federal rules to protect the animals will, some say, threaten the sport.
Beginning Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after losing a lawsuit from an animal rights group in 2009, will require breeders, ranchers and owners across Texas and the Southwest to follow the permitting process under the Endangered Species Act, which the hunting community says will destroy its business and lead to the decline in numbers of the antelope.
The deadline — and all it represents — has sparked an uproar in this fiercely independent part of the world, where many owners are racing to sell, give away or hunt the animals. Some even threaten to destroy the antelope before the government steps in.
Included are three species, the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax and the dama gazelle.
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"Ranchers in this country are very private-property individuals," said Charly Seale, the executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association in Ingram, Texas, about a 90-minute drive west of San Antonio. "We bought the animals with our own money and they're telling us what to do with them. They are not anybody's animals but ours."
Seale is so opposed to the permitting process that he's sold the 23 scimitar-horned oryx he was breeding.
To ranchers, the numbers of the Texas-raised antelope tell the story: Scimitar-horned oryx increased from 32 in 1979 to 11,032 in 2010, addax grew from two in 1979 to 5,112 in 2010 and the dama gazelle's population increased from nine in 1979 to 894 in 2010.
"Their home country had basically annihilated them," said U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, a hunter who's been the ranchers' champion on Capitol Hill and the go-between for them with the Fish and Wildlife Service since the regulation was issued in January.
The African antelope, he said, are "not an endangered species to America, where we are actually preserving the species."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, himself an avid hunter, told McClatchy, "I'm going to hunt the scimitar-horned oryx to draw attention to this, to make the point. If they don't allow the hunt, they're going to become extinct."
The Friends of Animals organization, which successfully sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over the Endangered Species Act exemption, has a radically different view of conservation, however.
"The reason these ranchers were given this loophole is because they were working to propagate the species," said Lee Hall, the vice president for legal affairs for Friends of Animals.
Asked about the increased numbers of the endangered antelope herds, Hall said, "That's true."
"But the question is does that count as conservation, to live and thrive as members of a bio-community? It's merely commercial exploitation in a strange, macabre touristy world. We wouldn't call that conservation."
"It's not credible to say you're conserving when you're breeding them to shoot at them and put their heads on the wall," she said.
Despite holding opposite views, Friends of Animals and the Exotic Wildlife Association are funding projects to return the endangered antelope species to Senegal in West Africa.
So far, only a small number of ranchers and breeders have applied for permits, about 50 as of Friday, willing to account annually for herds and "culling," or removing some animals. About half of those permits have been issued, which Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman calls a quick turnaround.
"People who are complaining are the minority," Kauffman said.
The Exotic Wildlife Association's Seale claims that the number of those who are willing to abide by the rules will be only 10 percent of the 400 ranchers and breeders in his group who own the three African antelope. He warns that there soon will be fewer than 1,000 of the animals.
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