The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the country’s strongest environmental laws. It has reportedly safeguarded 99 percent of the 1,482 species placed under its protection from extinction—in contrast to the high extinction rate for species not protected by the Act. Yet few citizens realize that some key provisions of the ESA are interpreted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to allow the very species protected by law—some of them extinct or barely clinging to survival in the wild—to be hunted in captivity.
Exotic and endangered animal species are hunted on U.S. ranches as part of the FWS captive-bred wildlife (CBW) registration program. Such species are bred and raised in captivity in the United States and kept in fenced enclosures, some as small as 50–100 acres, for the sole purpose of providing trophy hunting opportunities to those willing to shell out large sums of money to kill them. Subsequently, these hunters can transport the animals’ body parts in interstate and foreign commerce. The list of imperiled wildlife in the line of fire is large, and includes ungulates such as the barasingha, Eld’s deer, Arabian oryx, scimitar-horned oryx, addax, dama gazelle, and red lechwe.
The CBW registration program started in the late 1970s when American zoos were looking to unload surplus animals onto private landowners. This led to a surge in the number of exotic wildlife ranches, located primarily in Texas, which typically charge between $2,500 and $6,500 (and sometimes more) to hunt exotic species. Currently, there are between six and ten thousand scimitar-horned oryx on U.S. ranches who will be hunted, despite the fact that the species is designated as extinct in the wild by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
It is hard to imagine how the FWS can deem such hunting compatible with either the letter or the spirit of the ESA. The ESA was enacted to protect species threatened with extinction, not to allow wealthy hunters to kill captive-bred exotic wildlife on private ranches in Texas or elsewhere. The law only allows the FWS to permit an otherwise prohibited action—such as the “taking” (killing) of an endangered species—when the activities “are shown to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species, provided that the principal purpose is to facilitate conservation breeding.” So-called “enhancement” permits are to be issued only for those activities that positively benefit species in the wild and are not detrimental to the survival of wild or captive populations of the affected species.
To receive a CBW registration, ranches should thus be managing these animals in order to restore them to the wild—or at the very least be making impactful contributions to programs and scientific studies that truly benefit wild populations. In reality, however, as currently allowed, the permit holders simply have to provide a small contribution to an organization such as Safari Club International or Conservation Force (both dedicated to protecting hunters’ rights internationally) to purportedly aid wild populations. Yet there is no evidence such minor donations affect any meaningful benefit to the animals’ survival. Furthermore, there is no evidence that these ersatz in situ conservation programs are ever audited to gauge their legitimacy or effectiveness.
In fact, most permit applications fail even to attempt to justify “conserving” species in this manner, and the permit requirement appears to be nothing more than regulatory window dressing. Applications are approved that are scant on details, vague regarding measures to maintain genetic viability of the captive animals, and highly speculative in providing any concrete conservation benefits. They are often missing the most crucial details, such as how many of each species will be killed annually, the amount of revenue generated and donated to conservation programs, and details concerning commercial use and final destination of the hunting trophies—all information that is supposed to be gathered by FWS as part of the regulatory process. In addition, the ranches are rarely if ever inspected to ensure that they maintain “humane and healthful conditions,” as required by CBW permit standards.
The ranch operators and their allies, including the trophy hunters and some government officials, claim to be deeply concerned about conservation, and assert that allowing the well-heeled to gun down exotic species in Texas is effectively conserving the species in the wild. This presumes that the conservation projects supported by the pittance of funds received from the ranches are legitimate. Considering the declining status of these species, any such conservation efforts appear to be failing. If species conservation is indeed of utmost concern to the ranch operators, their clients, and advocates, they should invest directly in legitimate conservation projects with a proven track record of recovery and protection of the species and their native habitats.
The reality, however, is that rather than promoting conservation, these ranches are engaged in commercial captive hunting operations that cause pain and suffering to individual endangered animals, while actually compromising the survival of wild populations. Establishing legal markets for endangered species and their parts helps fuel consumer demand, thereby encouraging poaching and negatively impacting conservation. Indeed, the FWS itself has acknowledged that the trade of animal trophies and other body parts has negative impacts on species in the wild, stating that “consumptive uses can stimulate a demand for products which might further be satisfied by wild populations.”
To make matters worse, the harm from the ranches is not confined to the exploited species. Countless native species also suffer as a result of predator control activities surrounding the ranches. Owners typically employ lethal management techniques to protect their exotic herds from bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions. These techniques include neck snares, steel-jaw leghold traps, wire snares, and other cruel measures to ensure that native predators do not interfere with the exotic hunting business.
Animal welfare organizations are pushing for tighter regulation of this industry and mandatory compliance with the ESA. For years, the FWS granted an exemption to Texas breeders for the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax, and the dama gazelle, even though all three of these antelope species were declared extinct or endangered in the wild by the IUCN. This exemption meant that ranch operators were not required to register or obtain permits to breed or kill the animals.
This exemption was successfully challenged by Friends of Animals in court as a violation of Section 10(c) of the ESA, because it does not provide the public with an opportunity to comment on activities otherwise prohibited under the law. This challenge resulted in a court order to eliminate the exemption for all three species. Under the new rule, possessing, breeding and killing the animals requires authorization under the ESA. Despite recent challenges to the ruling by Safari Club International and the Exotic Wildlife Association, a federal judge upheld it, noting that it was necessary to “remove a regulation that has, since 2005, exempted U.S. non-native captive populations of the three antelope species from many of the prohibitions, restrictions, and requirements attendant to their classification as endangered species.”
It is possible that some CBW registrations granted in situations other than for trophy hunting provide a conservation benefit to species in the wild, in accordance with the purported intent of the program. However, for those exotic species bred and killed on hunting ranches, the required conservation value is absent. Furthermore, removing wild animals from their evolutionary and ecological context in order to “farm” them subverts the spirit and intent of the ESA in order to satisfy a special interest group—trophy hunters. Considering the difficulty inherent in successfully reintroducing captive-bred endangered species to the wild, and the fact that hunting ranches do not even make an honest attempt to do so or support such efforts, they cannot be enhancing propagation or survival of the affected species in the wild—as is required for the issuance of a take permit under the ESA.
After decades in operation, if there were any benefits from the CBW registration program, such benefits should be apparent and measurable by now. Yet, the FWS has not provided evidence documenting the effectiveness of this program in enhancing the survival of registered species in the wild. Indeed, according to the IUCN, the number of ranch-hunted species such as the addax, scimitar-horned oryx, dama gazelle, and Eld’s deer have declined in the wild since 1986, plummeting to dangerously low levels.
Considering this ongoing decline of many of the species subject to CBW registration, the program clearly is not meeting the original intent of the ESA—to protect and recover imperiled species in the wild. Instead, the FWS continues to cater to a very narrow, moneyed interest group while expecting the public to simply believe that a CBW registration translates into enhancement of endangered species as if, magically, killing correlates to conservation.