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Texas Ag Commissioner says Fed regulation overshadows conservation efforts

Staples joins fight against fed regulation. FWS may soon require private breeders to follow "cumbersome" permit procedures over the endangered status if the lawsuit fails. The exotic wildlife industry in Texas annually generates an estimated $1.3 billion in economic activity.

Accusing federal regulators of creating a problem where one doesn’t exist, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has joined State Attorney General Greg Abbott in opposing a U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regulation that challenges the Texas exotic wildlife industry’s authority and management of three species of what federal authorities have determined to be endangered African antelope.

Nine Texas ranchers and the Ingram-based Exotic Wildlife Association filed a federal lawsuit in Washington in early March in an attempt to overturn a 2005 FWS regulation that placed the antelope on the endangered list, subjecting longtime Texas breeders to the civil and criminal provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act.

According to the lawsuit, the species include the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax, or "screwhorn antelope," and the dama gazelle. All three species were declared endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of dwindling populations in their native breeding grounds in Africa. As a result, FWS removed the antelope from classification as livestock to the endangered species list, but granted an exemption to Texas breeders because of a successful and documented history of success in increasing antelope populations over the last twenty years. But under terms of a recent administrative move, FWS may soon require private breeders to follow "cumbersome" permit procedures over the endangered status if the lawsuit fails.

Charly Seale, Executive Director of the Exotic Wildlife Association of Ingram, Texas, says state ranchers are actually the group responsible for the species' comeback from near-extinction over the last 20 years.

“This is the most successful conservation effort ever undertaken by game breeders and ranchers here in Texas,” Seale states in the lawsuit. “We have literally brought these animals back from the brink of extinction in their native Africa and are currently involved in a conservation project that will send Scimitar Horned Oryx and Addax back to their native land.”

Successful breeding program

Texas officials say the numbers support that claim. Ranch-raised antelope populations exploded as a result of breeder’s efforts. Over 20 years the oryx's numbers increased from 32 in 1979 to more than 11,000 by 2010, the addax from two in 1971 to 5,100 by 2010, and the dama gazelle from nine in 1979 to almost 900 in 2010.

The exotic wildlife industry in Texas annually generates an estimated $1.3 billion in economic activity thanks in large part to property owners who often participate in wildlife management to supplement the financial demands of land ownership and agriculture production. As it stands, federal permitting requirements could replace exotic management incentives with a range of regulatory costs that would discourage conservation, resulting in losses to the antelope species as well as to valuable habitat that supports other plants and animals.

“Leave it to the federal government to create a problem where one doesn’t exist,” Commissioner Staples says in a supporting statement this week. “All Americans should withstand overly burdensome and unnecessary regulations and protect the rights of private citizens who have responsibly promoted the conservation of these exotic species.”

Staples has now joined the Attorney General Abbott in filing an amicus brief in support of the Exotic Wildlife Association’s lawsuit. The suit is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to stop the rule that will severely limit private Texas landowners’ ability to manage the three species of African antelope.

"The remarkable comeback of these three species happened because their owners were free to breed, raise and sell them like their other livestock," the lawsuit reads. "To support their efforts, some ranchers raised the animals for sale, while others sold the right to hunt on their ranches. As FWS recognized, hunting provides an economic incentive for private landowners such as ranchers to continue to breed these species and maintain them as a genetic reservoir for future reintroduction or research.”

Prior to an FWS announcement declaring the three antelope species ‘endangered,’ three peer reviewers appointed by FWS recommended the antelope "be allowed to flourish," but the agency began regulating the species as endangered rather than as livestock in 2005 according to the complaint.

"In 2011 FWS sealed the doom of private breeding efforts—the sole hope for success of these three species—by  subjecting these ranchers and their animals to the same one-size-fits-all permit process designed for zoos, aquariums and private wildlife preserves," the lawsuit claims.

“Bureaucrats in Washington are imposing ill-considered regulations that trample private property rights while doing little or nothing to help endangered species,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement earlier this month. “After decades of careful conservation efforts, Texas exotic game ranches successfully fostered thriving herds of rare African antelope, even as all three species grew virtually extinct in the wild. I’m joining a legal action that will protect both ranchers in Texas and the rare animals they help cultivate.”

“Instead of upholding private property rights and letting the market system continue working, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will enforce a new requirement that effectively penalizes Texas ranchers and landowners for a job well-done,” Commissioner Staples said.

If the court does not issue an injunction, the new requirements are set to go into effect on April 4.

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