Sick but True: The Federal Government Supports Profiteering From Endangered Species' Deaths

It’s hard to imagine the motivation behind a canned hunt—a for-profit venture where animals are fenced in to provide an easy kill for a price. One couldn’t think the literal equivalent of "shooting fish in a barrel" could be worth bragging rights, yet photos of hunters with their kill and animals’ heads mounted on walls seems to prove otherwise.

There are hundreds of canned hunting operations, also referred to as so-called hunting ranches, in the United States—primarily in Texas and Florida—that are commercial enterprises designed to profit from death. These facilities maintain herds of animals for the sole purpose of selling the opportunity to kill those animals to prospective customers.

This pay-to-kill model is not in dispute. In fact, these ranches tout the fact they charge “bounties” based on the type of animal killed. Some of the owners of these ranches may come as a surprise, as it includes billionaires such as Ted Turner, the founder of CNN. Turner’s ranches offer “special opportunities” to kill “mule deer, pronghorn, bison, oryx,” and even “desert bighorn rams.”

The most expensive, and the most lucrative, animals are so-called “exotics”—non-native species which are imported and bred simply to be killed. Some animals can fetch “bounties” in the tens of thousands of dollars per kill—because they are endangered species.  

It’s illogical that the U.S. has laws specifically to protect species designated as threatened and endangered—yet if you’re willing to pay the price, you can kill one.

The Eld’s deer is one of several species that are marketed as being available for hunting at these kill mills, notwithstanding their status as endangered and subject to the supposed protections of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Like many of these “high-dollar targets,” the Eld’s deer is near extinction. The Eld’s deer is native to Southeast Asia and is already viewed as possibly extinct in many of its native countries. There are perhaps less than 2,400 total members of the species remaining in the wild. Its near extinct status was largely driven by humans: Eld’s deer are one of the most prized trophy hunt animals because they have both spectacularly impressive antlers and have hides that are demand in Southeast Asian markets.

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The Eld's deer is facing extinction, yet hunters can kill them for a price. (image: Worraket/Shutterstock)

Despite the Eld’s deer’s near extinct status in the wild, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service—the agency that oversees the Endangered Species Act—continues to allow these hunting ranches to profit from the death of these majestic animals. Killing these animals does nothing to benefit the species itself but serves merely to provide profit for the ranch owners. Yet the USFWS claims this practice somehow qualifies for approval under the Endangered Species Act because it “enhance[s] the propagation or survival” of these endangered species.

What perverse twist of logic justifies the killing of animals as “enhancing” the survival of their species? It’s a USFWS informal (and improper) policy known as “pay-to-play.” Under this pay-to-play scheme, certain USFWS officials have approved Endangered Species Act applications that provide no benefit to the species itself if the applicant demonstrates some financial payments are made for conservation programs in general.

Some hunting ranches assert on their applications that they will donate, as little as 10 percent, some of the “bounty” charged for each kill to conservation groups claiming these generalized donations will somehow enhance the overall survival of the species killed.

Yet not only is there no direct link between the killed animal’s species and these donations, the beneficiary of such donations is often a pro-hunting group that merely camouflages itself behind a “conservation” label. For example, one popular recipient is Conservation Force, which has a website that proclaims its mission is to expand hunting and lists its key successes as obtaining permits for the importation of hunt trophies for elephants, leopards, black rhinos and even polar bears. Rather than actual conservation, Conservation Force merely seeks to expand the number of possible targets for its pro-hunting membership to kill.

How can this illegal and improper scheme be stopped? The Animal Legal Defense Fund has launched a campaign against these canned hunting operations that includes issuing comments objecting to the USFWS, and demanding that hunting ranches’ applications be denied because they engage in commercial enterprise inconsistent with and, in fact, violates the plain statutory command of the Endangered Species Act. As the Animal Legal Defense Fund has demonstrated, the USFWS’s unethical “pay to play” scheme is improper and should not be used to allow these for-profit operations to continue to profit from the death of the very animals the USFWS is charged with protecting under the Endangered Species Act.

The public can also take action. First, any member of the public can comment on the permit applications submitted by canned hunting operations. A tracker is available on the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s website at By voicing your objection to these applications you will increase the pressure on the USFWS to step up and actually enforce the Endangered Species Act as intended. Second, the laws could also be improved. In 2001, a bill known as the Captive Exotic Animal Protection Act of 2001 was introduced that would have made it illegal to “allow the killing or injuring of [an exotic] animal for entertainment or the collection of a trophy.” That legislation was not enacted, but sufficient public outrage regarding these canned exotic hunting ranches could lead to future legislative efforts and public pressure on elected officials to introduce and pass such legislation.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund is committed to exploring all legal avenues available to stop, once and for all, any facility that profits from the death of animals, including these canned hunting ranches. We hope you will join us in that fight.

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