Federal Court Stops Use of Endangered Species in Canned Hunts

scimitar horned oryxFormer U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney helped raise awareness, albeit unwittingly, about the cruelty of canned hunts. In one instance at a canned hunt in Ligonier Township, PA, at the Rolling Rock Club, Cheney and several others, including Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, killed 417 ringneck pheasants and an untold number of mallard ducks.

Cheney reportedly killed 70 ringtailed pheasants and a number of the ducks.

A canned hunt can be described as shooting fish in a barrel. The animals are often captive bred and raised for the "hunt". They are then placed or thrown in front of shooters who fire their weapons at them. Sometimes the birds are made dizzy before they are released.

It’s not just birds that are victimized.  There are canned hunts for native or exotic mammals. The animals may be bred and raised there and not at all afraid of humans. They may also have been pets abandoned by owners or animals dumped by breeders and dealers, exhibitions or zoos. Regardless, they are likely used to living in captivity.

These animals are then released into a fenced area where there is no chance of escape. To make the killing easier for the trophy "hunter", the animals may be gathered in an area ostensibly for feeding. Or they may be drawn to bait set out to bring them to a particular area. They are probably familiar with the humans herding them and also accustomed to walking through gates and into fenced areas.

This time, though, shooters are there, ready to blast away at the trapped, frightened animals.  The shooters avoid the head and upper torso, of course, the vital organs, because that would mess up the look of the trophy.

That means the shooters aim for non-vital organs, causing a slow death. After the animals die what is many times an agonizing death, the shooters then leave with their "trophies".

A sort of drive through, if not drive by, shooting. The shooters pay a fee based on how many animals they kill, a "no kill, no pay" operation.

Read Matthew Scully’s description of the politics of canned hunts and the worldwide "competitions" that result in the slaughter of thousands of animals each year.    

With canned hunts around, breeders, dealers, and others have an incentive to overbreed or at least not worry about doing so. Also, the animals held for a canned hunt operation also known as game, hunting or shooting preserves or ranches, are not subject even to the meager protections of the Animal Welfare Act.

(Go here for information about a bill pending in Congress, the Sportsmanship in Hunting  Act of 2009, H.R. 2308, that would put an end to canned hunts of exotic mammals.)  

Sadly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been happy to help the exclusive, expensive canned hunt clubs like Rolling Rock by exempting some animals from the protections of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§1531 et seq. An exemption means the animals could be  killed in canned hunts.

dama gazelleFWS officials have said with a straight face that the captive breeding and killing of these animals in canned hunts contributes to the conservation of the species!    

Fortunately, a federal court has now ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of Interior, exceeded its authority in exempting 3 endangered species from the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531, et seq.,… the scimitar horned oryx, the addax, and the dama gazelle. The rule allowed these animals to be killed during canned hunts.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by Fund for Animals, The Humane Society of the United States, Born Free USA, among others, against the U.S. Dept. of Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their officials. The Safari Club International and Exotic Wildlife Association intervened as defendants.

Plaintiffs assert violations under several sections of the ESA and under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321, et seq. ("NEPA").

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy explained in the opinion, "The purpose of the ESA is to "provide a program for the conservation of [] endangered and threatened species." 16 U.S.C. § 1531(b). The Act established a national policy "that all Federal departments and agencies shall seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species and shall utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of [the Act]." Id. §1531(c). Section 4 of the ESA directs the FWS to list species that it determines are endangered or threatened. Id. § 1533(c). Once a species is listed as endangered, it receives the full protections of the Act.

"Section 9 of the ESA contains several prohibitions with respect to species listed as endangered, including prohibitions on importing, exporting, and taking such species. Id. §1538(a). "Taking" an endangered species includes harming, harassing, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting such species. Id. § 1532(19).

Section 10 of the ESA provides three exceptions to these prohibitions. Id. § 1539. First, …paragraph 10(a)(1)(A) authorizes the FWS to "permit . . . any act otherwise prohibited by [section 9] for scientific purposes or to enhance the propagation or survival of the affected species, including, but not limited to, acts necessary for the establishment and maintenance of experimental populations . . . ." Id. §1539(a)(1)(A). In addition, paragraph 10(a)(1)(B) authorizes an exception for takes which are incidental to carrying out an otherwise lawful activity, id.§ 1539(a)(1)(B), and section 10(b) authorizes hardship exemptions in specific cases where the Act will cause undue economic hardship, id. § 1539(b).  

"With respect to applications for permits or exemptions [from ESA]…, the[re are] notice and review requirements and …exceptions [can only be granted] if they are in good faith and will not operate to the disadvantage of the endangered species, and will be consistent with the purposes and policy of the ESA. Id. § 1539(c), (d).

"The antelope species at issue in these cases are native to the deserts of northern Africa. Today, the scimitar-horned oryx is extinct in the wild, and there are very few addax or dama gazelle in the wild.

"In 1991, the FWS proposed listing the antelope species as endangered. 56 Fed. Reg. 56491-95 (November 5, 1991). It was not until 2005, following a lawsuit, however, that the FWS listed the antelope species as endangered. See 70 Fed. Reg. 52319 (Sept. 2, 2005).

In that listing, the FWS found that the decline of the antelope species in their native range was due to habitat loss through desertification, human settlement and competition with livestock, and regional military activity and uncontrolled killing. Id.

"Private ranches in the United States breed the antelope species in captivity. Some of these ranches allow sport hunters to kill antelopes for a fee. At the same time that the FWS listed the antelope as endangered, it also issued a rule… excepting United States captive-bred members of the antelope species from the take and other prohibitions of section 9 of the ESA. 70 Fed. Reg. 52310 (Sept. 2, 2005).

"The FWS found, ‘[b]ased on information available to the Service, captive breeding in the United States has contributed significantly to the conservation of these species.’" Id. at 52315.

"The Rule states that: any person … may take; export or reimport; deliver, receive, carry, transport or ship …or sell or offer for sale in interstate or foreign commerce live wildlife, including embryos and gametes, and sport hunted trophies of [the antelope species under certain circumstances]. Id. at 52318.

addax"These circumstances include: (1) the purpose of the activity must be associated with the management or transfer of wildlife in a manner that "contributes to increasing or sustaining captive numbers or to potential reintroduction to range countries," (2) captive breeding operations must be managed in a manner that maintains genetic diversity, and (3) each person claiming the benefit of the exception must maintain accurate written records of activities".

The court found the rule violated ESA because it created a "blanket exception for all persons who breed the antelope species in captivity in the United States without any requirement for an application and case-by-case assessment of that application."…

In finding the rule exepting these 3 species from the ESA protections is invalid, the court pointed out the "public is shut out" and the FWS decided it alone would have the information about whether the canned hunt operators were actually doing anything in breeding, raising and caring for the animals to justify the exception.  

Surely, the FWS will drop the pretense that canned hunts are conservation measures and not create exemptions for other endangered animals so that they can be slaughtered by wealthy trophy hunters at exclusive clubs. Dick Cheney is out of office and hopefully the distortion of laws like ESA, the slaughter of wildlife disguised as sport, and blatant animal cruelty, are gone as well.