Until last week, U.S. trophy hunters had the legal right to hunt three species of endangered African game at American ranches, thanks to a “blanket exemption” to the Endangered Species Act issued during the Bush administration.

That loophole has now been closed, following a federal judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the organization Friends of Animals, based on Darien, Conn.

The ruling protects U.S.-bred scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), addax (Addax nasomaculatus), and dama gazelles (Nanger dama), all of which are critically endangered in their African homelands, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The three species were listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2005, which should have granted them a greater level of protection, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a rule creating an exception for captive-bred antelope, claiming "captive breeding in the United States has contributed significantly to the conservation of these species."

Friends of Animals first sued to protect the three species in 2005. "Why would the government allow the hunting of these antelope any more than they’d allow the hunting of a chimpanzee?" said Friends of Animals president Priscilla Feral in a statement.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., attacked this exception, writing, "Blanket exemptions under regulations are anathema to [the intentions of the Endangered Species Act] because they allow the FWS to permit a great number of exemptions at once without providing the detailed information to the public that would be required in an individualized analysis."

Until now, American sport hunters could pay $3,500 to hunt and kill a scimitar-horned oryx—and even more for an addax or dama gazelle—and keep the carcasses as trophies. International travel to accomplish the same task has long been banned by the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).

Image: Scimitar-Horned Oryx at the Wildlife Ranch in San Antonio, Texas, via Wikipedia