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Judge Rules for Hunters in Fight Over Captive Herds

WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge has ruled for hunting interests in the latest skirmish of the longstanding battle regarding captive herds of three species of endangered antelope.

On March 4,U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell of the District of Columbia Federal Court ruled against plaintiff animal advocacy group Friends of Animals (FOA), and for defendant Sally Jewell, as Director of the Department of Interior, and defendant-intervenor Safari Club International.

The struggle over the fate of the captive antelope herds has raged for more than two decades.

In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list North Africa's scimitar-horned oryx, dama gazelle, and the addax, as endangered species due to drastic population declines that have left all three species at the brink of extinction in the wild.

That attempt stalled due to budget constraints until 2005, when the listing proposal was coupled with a proposal to exclude ranched hunt-club herds in the United States on the presumption that the animals depended on captive-breeding for their conservation.

Conservation groups sued to have the exclusion for the hunt clubs repealed on the basis that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires a case-by-case permitting process rather than a blanket exemption, and finally prevailed in 2009. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the exclusion in 2012.

With a "$1.3 billion industry" at stake, Safari Club International then sued to block the listing status, but Judge Howell denied them an injunction in April 2012 holding that they could still operate through the case-by-case permit requirement.

SCI was joined by the Exotic Wildlife Association of Texas in a suit to invalidate and set aside the rule that removed the exemption.

In response to petitions from the hunt clubs, the Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the species' status, but declined to delist the captive populations in June 2013. The agency determined that captive animals should have the same restrictions as wild animals under the similarity-of-appearance provisions of the ESA.

In August 2013, Judge Howell ruled for the federal agency on the basis that the USFWS' "default" approach has been to list captive and wild members of a species together.

Then, in a stunning reversal, the fate of the captive animals changed again due to the Consolidated Appropriation Act (CAA) in early 2014, which was enacted to prevent another government shutdown. The act carried a rider inserted by a Texas congressman that directed the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the hunt club exemption.

The FOA filed suit in March 2014, challenging the exemption once again on the basis that it violates the ESA. The current ruling addresses this suit, but the ruling itself hinges on the court's determination of the standing of the plaintiff, rather than on the merits of the exemption or the most effective method to conserve the animals.

To establish standing in this case, the plaintiff was required to show it had suffered an injury, that the defendant caused it, and that the injury would be "redressed" or remedied by a favorable ruling.

The FOA argued that its interest in wild antelope would be harmed by the removal of the exemption, and it cited the USFWS' own finding in its delisting proposal "that captive African antelope in the United States can help drive increased take and trade in 'laundered' wild caught specimens."

Animal laundering, as used by the plaintiff in this case, is the act of illegally trafficking both live animals and their parts where the wild animal goes through a process to "cleanse" its origin and make it appear the animal was obtained legally, as through a hunt club for instance.

Judge Howell determined that the plaintiff's "generalized statements" did not meet the burden of establishing that a favorable decision in the case would increase the likelihood that the plaintiff would receive relief for the injury, and did not find that the plaintiff's arguments were sufficient to overcome the Congressional action through the CAA.

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