(CN) – Ranching and hunting interests cannot challenge the regulation of captive-bred herds of endangered African antelopes, a federal judge ruled.
Scimitar-horned oryx, dama gazelle and addax herds have dwindled in their native North African habitats, with the oryx considered to be possibly extinct on that continent.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has considered the issue for two decades amid funding shortages and listed the three antelope species as endangered in 2005.
In a separate rule, the agency provided a blanket exemption from some provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for U.S. captive-bred herds.
Animal rights groups fought the exemption, however, and ultimately persuaded a federal judge to invalidate it in 2009. The USFWS ultimately removed the captive-bred exemption in a January 2012 final rule.
Safari Club International, an Arizona-based nonprofit dedicated to defending the rights of hunters and wildlife conservation, then filed suit to block the endangered listing status.
The Exotic Wildlife Association, a Texas-based trade organization of ranchers, also filed suit. It noted ranchers, mainly in the United States, have successfully built up sustainable herds of these animals, including the oryx, and have created a “$1.3 billion industry and thousands of jobs” breeding and raising the animals for hunting.
With the lawsuit consolidated, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell denied the groups an injunction in April 2012, just as the exemption removal took effect.
Though Fish and Wildlife later agreed to conduct a yearlong review, it declined to delist the captive-bred antelope herds in June 2013.
Judge Howell granted the federal defendants summary judgment from the consolidated actions Friday.
Safari Club had cited the chimpanzee and the Nile crocodile as two examples of separate listing designations for captive and wild animals, but Howell noted that the crocodile’s listing status had already been reconciled, and the chimp’s status is currently being reconciled.
The two examples do not support the hunters’ position, but “serve to highlight that the agency’s ‘default’ approach to listing species has been to list captive and wild members of a species together,” according to the 105-page ruling.
Safari Club had also claimed that the listing decision would undermine conservation efforts, but the judge responded that, “rather than ‘undermining’ U.S. efforts at conserving the three antelope species, the decision to list them as endangered ensures that the FWS can monitor the numbers and care of these animals.”
The ranchers’ challenge revolved around the canceled exemption, described in the opinion as the Removal Rule. They maintained that Fish and Wildlife could have explored other options instead of repealing the blanket exemption.
Howell noted, however, that the agency “had considered, but ultimately found no alternatives,” even though it was not obligated to do so.
Exotic Wildlife Association also maintained that the Removal Rule would threaten conservation efforts. With the removal of the blanket exemption, ranchers must now pursue individual permits through the ESA’s Section 10 permitting process, which ranchers find burdensome.
Howell nevertheless agreed with Fish and Wildlife that the change to the regulations should not stop ranches from continuing previously authorized activities even though they “may need to make adjustments to comply with the new permitting requirements.”
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