- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - The Dallas Safari Club’s auction of a black rhino hunting permit brought the group international controversy and brought the winning hunter death threats.

But the dust-up over the role of big-game hunters in wildlife conservation and management of endangered species hasn’t slowed the Dallas group. Officials are broadening their reach by starting a nationwide network of chapters. That could continue to expand the Dallas club’s national influence and make it more of a competitor to Safari Club International.

“Dallas is much bigger than Dallas,” Mark Jones of Connecticut, the Dallas club’s Northeast chapter president, told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1JDceZu). “It’s even bigger than Texas.”

Jones’ group and a small organization in Lubbock joined with the Dallas club in November as its first chapters. The Dallas Safari Club has had affiliate groups for years but no chapter system like the larger and better-known Safari Club International.

Even before those changes, the Dallas club was more than just a local outpost.

About 60 percent of its members live outside Texas. The group also spends $1 million annually on lobbying efforts and wildlife projects, such as genetic studies of lions and rebuilding a law enforcement facility in Zambia.

Its annual convention has drawn 50,000 people in past years and brings in about 1,000 exhibitors.

“A lot of people in the outdoors and hunting community already view us as a major force in the industry,” said Ben Carter, the club’s executive director.

Club officials said they aren’t trying to replace Safari Club International, the Dallas group’s original parent organization. Many hunters are members of both, and that’s likely to continue, they said.

“There’s plenty to go around for everyone out there,” said Kim Rappleye, a former Safari Club International staffer now heading the Dallas club’s expansion. “It’s just an alternative.”

The Dallas group now often uses the initials DSC to de-emphasize geography. SCI also uses initials often to play down the word safari, which might suggest an exclusive focus on big-game hunts in Africa.

Officials at the SCI headquarters and at their North Texas chapter did not respond to requests for comment about the DSC’s expansion efforts.

The Safari Club International was dragged into a big-game controversy when one of its members shot and killed the now famous Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe. Officials suspended the hunter, a Minnesota dentist. He was not charged in the case, and other members of his hunting party were blamed for luring Cecil out of a protected area.

In the black rhino case, the Dallas Safari Club pointed out that the rhino was no longer breeding and was a problem for the rest of the herd. The effort raised about $350,000 for Namibia’s conservation efforts.

“We knew that was potentially controversial, but we knew it was right thing to do,” Carter said. “It was an opportunity to raise an awful lot of money to black rhino conservation. That was a big statement.”

Critics oppose such hunts and say that nonlethal safaris and wildlife tourism are far more profitable. They often scoff at big-game hunters’ claims to be conservationists.

Last year, the Dallas Safari Club canceled plans to auction a chance to kill an African elephant, a plan that came under fire from animal conservation groups. Animal welfare activists have also picketed previous conventions.

The Dallas Safari Club has long had a national reputation in the hunting world, but its status has risen alongside its finances. Over the last 10 years, revenue has increased more than 250 percent to nearly $5.5 million, according to IRS filings. Its membership doubled to more than 6,000 people in just a few years.

These new ambitions put the Dallas club in closer competition with Safari Club International, the organization that gave Dallas its start decades ago before a falling out. A 1982 story in The Dallas Morning News said Dallas and Houston were among eight chapters “booted out” by SCI founder C.J. McElroy. The Dallas chapter was considering an effort to oust McElroy, who was described by some opponents as “dictatorial.”

These days, Dallas club officials aren’t bad-mouthing their old benefactor. They said they’re just looking to broaden the membership, fund more national and international wildlife preservation efforts and flex more lobbying muscle.

“Being up on Capitol Hill, we’ll have a louder voice as items of interest come up for sportsmen,” Carter said.

For the new chapters, it’s a chance to hook up with a more established group but retain some independence. Local chapters will keep most of the money they raise and steer the spending of some of the money they send to the DSC.

Rappleye said most organizations with a chapter network take all proceeds from the local group’s major fundraisers.

“They’ve sucked all the money out of the local community, and then they’re spending it somewhere else,” he said. “That’s OK. It goes to a mission accomplishment of the national organization. But it’s kind of like kissing your sister. You don’t feel that good after you’re done with it.”

So far, there are just two chapters: one obvious and one not.

Jones, who heads DSC Northeast, said New Englanders are initially confused about the affiliation. His group was formed a few years ago as the independent Venator Foundation.

“When people hear that, they say, ‘What? What?’” he said. “When I explain that they have members all over the world, it makes sense.”

He said the local autonomy makes members feel more like partners.

The West Texas chapter, which started as the Lubbock Sportsman’s Club, requires less explanation. President Tim Gafford said the Texas connection was a selling point, as was the higher level of independence and “positive energy” from the volunteers and staff. Plus, he’s also happy to see the regional diversity.

“It’s good that not all the chapters need to come from Texas,” he said. “I’m just glad we were the first.”

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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