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Pakistan Goat Downlisted in Light of Recovery

WASHINGTON (CN) - A wild mountain goat in Pakistan has rebounded because of conservation efforts, and has been downlisted from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the downlisting, a species reclassification and a special exemption rule for trophy hunting in the listing action published Tuesday.

The USFWS has combined two subspecies currently listed under the ESA into one subspecies. The straight-horned or Suleiman markhor (Capra falconeri jerdoni) and the Kabul markhor (C. f. megaceros) are now considered to be the straight-horned markhor (C. f. megaceros), to align with the accepted naming conventions used by the Integrated Taxonomic Information System and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The USFWS listed both the Kabul and Suleiman markhors as endangered in 1976. The markhors are threatened by over-hunting. During the Soviet-Afghan War in 1979, the proliferation of weapons meant that many displaced people could access weapons to kill the animals for subsistence on wild goat meat. Even though Afghanistan banned hunting the goats for five years, the markhor is thought to be locally extinct in that country. The total population may have shrunk to as few as 200 animals in the early 1980s due to poaching.

Now the goats exist in small numbers in inaccessible regions in the Torghar Hills of Pakistan and in conservation areas, and are often hunted by sport trophy hunters due to their unique horns, which spiral in a straight line like a corkscrew. Other markhors have spiraled horns that also curve back away from the animal's head.

In 1985, tribal leaders, with the help of the USFWS, founded a community-based conservation program, the Torghar Conservation Project (TCP), according to last year's proposed rule revision. At the time of the listing proposal in August 2012, it was estimated that fewer than 2000 straight-horned markhor survived. Now the estimated population has increased to over 3,000 animals.

The TCP banned hunting by tribesmen and hired them instead as game guards to prevent poaching. The salaries come from trophy hunting by foreign game hunters who pay up to $35,000 to hunt a limited number of the goats in the conservation area. Despite the trophy hunting allowed in the TCP, the herd has increased steadily and is considered to be "the stronghold of the species," according to a USFWS fact sheet.

In August 2010, the USFWS received a petition from numerous sport hunting advocates requesting the downlisting of the goats. In February 2012, the hunters filed suit against the agency for failure to conduct a five-year review, which resulted in a settlement agreement that lead to the publication of the listing proposal.

The delisting of the animals from endangered to threatened status allows the USFWS to establish a special 4(d) exemption rule under the ESA that is not permitted for species with an endangered status. In this case, the agency has exempted the import of sport-hunted markhor trophies from the conservation areas without the need to apply for a permit.

The wild markhor outside the TCP are still in population decline due to habitat loss and the pressure of millions of displaced people on natural resources. Because the population within the TCP is increasing, the USFWS has determined that the species is not in imminent danger of extinction, and therefore no longer merits the endangered listing status.

"The pressures on habitat in the Torghar Hills and interactions between livestock and markhor are likely to increase ... resulting in the subspecies as a whole being at risk of extinction due to the strong likelihood of a catastrophic or stochastic event (e.g., disease) impacting the Torghar Hills population. Should such an event occur, this single population would likely not provide a sufficient margin of safety for the subspecies," the agency wrote.

The listing is effective Nov. 6, 2014.

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