The U.S. Senate is set to consider exempting three antelope species from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), the dama gazelle (Gazella dama), and the addax antelope (Addax nasomaculatus) – affectionately known as the “Three Amigos” – were exempted from 2005 until 2012, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relisted the species as endangered.

On January 15, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill (pdf) that would fund the federal government through the remainder of fiscal year 2014. Included in the bill is a rider that directs the Secretary of the Interior to reinstate the exemption that applied to the Three Amigos until 2012.

Proponents of the rider argue that, since the Three Amigos were relisted as endangered, their populations have fallen significantly. They claim that estimates of the scimitar horned oryx put its population at half of its 2010 population level. Proponents believe that exempting the Three Amigos from ESA protections will incentivize ranchers to maintain their populations in order to profit from hunting revenue.

Opponents of the rider argue that the exemption should not be reinstated because it would lead to the killing of near-extinct animals for recreational purposes. They point to the fact that current law allows for the hunting of the Three Amigos in captivity, but only after obtaining a federal conservation permit. Moreover, opponents are concerned that allowing such a rider to pass will set a precedent for Congress to more frequently exempt endangered species from the protections of the ESA.

The rider was introduced by Representative John Carter (R-Tex.), who stated “It’s time for the federal government to step out of the way, because ESA status has been deadly for these species. An ESA exemption would give these species real value, and that, in turn, clears the way for their numbers to go back up.”

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.