A long-in-place loophole that exempted captive-bred chimpanzees from the full protections of the Endangered Species Act may finally be closed, Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), announced on June 11.

For decades now, wild-born chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) have been classified as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Captive-born chimps, on the other hand, have only been classified under the lesser category of "threatened." Chimpanzees have been the only species with this "split list" status, which afforded the captive-bred apes significantly lower protections, as I wrote in September 2011:

...this [split listing] means "people who register with FWS can legally export, reimport, sell and 'take' (including euthanize) their captive-bred apes as long as those activities enhance the survival of the species." Those activities include scientific research, exhibition (this applies to show-biz chimpanzees) or "holding and maintenance of 'surplus' apes (meaning those not immediately needed for scientific research or breeding)." The "threatened" designation also means that people can import, export or sell great apes with an FWS permit.

The federal wildlife agency has now proposed changing this longstanding policy. "If this rule is finalized as proposed, the ESA protections will be extended to captive chimpanzees in the U.S.," Ashe said during a press call on Tuesday. This would not end private ownership of chimps—an estimated 2,000 chimpanzees are in private hands in this country, including those in zoos and medical research facilities—but it would add what Ashe characterized as "important and significant protections" for any captive apes.

This week's move comes in response to a petition from numerous wildlife and animal rights organizations, including The Humane Society of the United States and the Jane Goodall Institute, whose namesake founder was present for the announcement. "I am particularly thrilled that we've come to this point because I was involved back in the '90s in the time when the split listing was proposed," Goodall said during Tuesday's press call. She called that original process "a very painful decision" that was "like turning [our] back on all the captive chimpanzees. But at that time it was such as huge emphasis on medical research, with HIV-AIDS and everything—which has turned out not to be useful; but at that time it seemed fairly obvious that had we demanded that all chimps be endangered, which would mean they couldn't have been used in that way, we would have failed, and it was so desperately important to help the wild chimpanzees who faced so many threats."

Ashe explained some of the reasoning behind the original 1990 split listing: "We wanted to encourage breeding of chimps at that time, believing at that time that providing additional animals in captive populations would reduce the incentive to remove animals from the wild." He indicated that a recent review of the ESA found that the law "does not allow for captive animals to be provided a separate status from their wild counterparts."

Today's announcement doesn't change anything for captive chimps quite yet. The proposal will be published soon in the government’s Federal Register, after which a 60-day public comment period will open. Ashe said the agency particularly seeks input on how chimps are being used in medical research and the entertainment industry in order to write the rules for how those activities would be governed under the ESA in the future. The wildlife agency said it plans to work closely with organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as well as the broader biomedical research community to see how their operations would be affected by the proposal. The agency will have about 12 months after the public comment period closes to write the final rules.

Ashe said he sees this week's announcement as an opportunity to call attention to the plight of chimps in the wild, which face increasing pressure from habitat loss, growing human populations, poaching and diseases. "We hope this proposal will ignite a renewed public interest in the status of chimpanzees in the wild as well as an appreciation for the wild things and the wild places that sustain us all."

Photo by Tim Parkinson. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: