When talk turns to species conservation, you’re more apt to think of petitions, environmental laws, and habitat-mending than of a rifle pointed at the torso of an endangered animal. And yet, hunting — that reddest of Red American pastimes — might actually be the key to saving certain species from extinction. That’s the message of Daniel Duane’s feature story in the current issue of Mother Jones.
Duane, an outdoorsman and avowed environmentalist, joined in a “conservation hunt” for bighorn sheep in the Mexican desert, tagging along with Brian Drettmann, a millionaire hunter from Michigan who paid nearly $60,000 for the right to hunt and kill — or “harvest” in the lingo of conservation hunting — one of the animals. The hunt went forward under the auspices of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS), whose mission is to preserve the majestic high-alpine species, using money raised from hunters like Drettman (four sheep may be hunted in this way in any one year) to pay for habitat restoration and boost the local economy. (It also goes toward employing locals as hunting guides, or ejidatarios.)
Development has meant less poaching and thus more sheep in the area. In fact, since FNAWS started its work more than a decade ago, it has raised more than $24 million, and the North American wild sheep population, formerly decimated by disease, habitat erosion, and over-hunting, has nearly quadrupled.
Say what you will about the “sport” of hunting, the end result of Drettman was a responsible, efficient win/win for perhaps everyone involved — save one particular “sacrificial ram.”
MotherJones.com: What was your initial feeling about “hunting conservation”?
Daniel Duane: I think probably my gut reaction is the same one I have heard from almost everybody I have described it to. I include in that people I respect, my friends, and all my peers. Which is, “How weird, they are going to kill animals to save them. Isn’t that a little ironic?” I don’t judge that response, because I had it myself.
I have written about and cared about the environment for a long time — I’m a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club — and so I went into this article a little bit bored with my own ways of thinking, and I was determined to put aside my own knee-jerk reactions. [I was] tired of a blue-state/red-state, “two Americas” split between ranching culture and environmental culture. I guess I went into it with an open mind for that reason.
MJ.com: What was your impressions of FNAWS?
DD: FNAWS is a pretty slick organization. These guys are not amateurs. FNAWS has had a tremendous impact on the population of North American wild sheep. They are not solely responsible, but since they got involved the population of North American wild sheep has increased something like 400 percent. They have raised enormous amounts of money, as have a lot of other hunting-based wildlife conservation groups, so FNAWs is a very effective, well-run, well-oiled machine.
MJ.com: Why do they do what they do?
I am new to hunting culture, so I have to be pretty careful about the claims that I make about why hunters do what they do. But I am getting some sense of it because I asked these guys a lot. It is clear to me that what Brian Drettmann felt that what he was buying, in addition to an interest in philanthropy and the chance to get a big trophy, was the experience.
The difficulty for me is coming from a left to radical-left background with very limited exposure to hunting culture. I think that starting to understand it on its own terms, starting to understand hunting in particular, this kind of hunting on its own terms, requires stepping outside of yourself a little bit. Because, unless you understand what the real satisfactions of it are and the cultural context in which it’s happening it just doesn’t make very much sense. It is not just, ‘bang I killed the sucker!’ It is part of a whole cultural context.
MJ.com: The ejidatarios, what is their relationship to the bighorn?
DD: I didn’t get the feeling that these guys were thinkin, “I wish I had $59,000 so I could be doing this.” Partly, one has to remember that these are guides and that they are and were very aware that their role as guides included not just getting us close to a ram so Brian could shoot one, but providing a great experience and a really positive experience for everyone. It seemed to me that they were genuinely fascinated by the animals, genuinely loved to hide in the rocks with the spotting scopes and pick out the sheep way up there in the mountain and talk about them.
I don’t feel that I had enough access to their hearts to know what was [there]. There is something about the hunter’s relationship to wildlife and the ranching and farming culture relationship to wildlife that comes from a different place than the sort of pure environmentalist or wildlife lover. … When we all walked up to the dead ram, everyone wanted their picture taken with it, myself included. Every single guide wanted to sit with the ram, hold its head up and hold its horn and smile and get their picture taken.
MJ.com: And you did, too?
DD: Yeah, I was just delighted by the whole thing. And yet the artifacts that those photo sessions produced, the photo of a person holding a ram, is so empty for a non-hunter. It is really curious for me. I have seen a lot of these pictures now. I have seen them on all these hunting websites, these guys in camo with their big compound crossbows and huge smile and dead deer and they are so thrilled and you just look at it and go, what on earth?
My own feeling is that there is a genuine and legitimate mystery in the allure of hunting, in the experience of hunting, and the way hunting culture is communicated to the rest of us does absolutely nothing to get that across. Those pictures, they really do damage to it. You look at pictures of those guys grinning and if you haven’t been there and you haven’t been exposed to it and you haven’t felt what these guys are feeling in those pictures and you think, god, this is just pathetic. But I am telling you, if you have, at least for me. I have, that experience has really changed my view of what is going on there. There is at least the potential for something very rich and meaningful there.
MJ.com: Would you consider hunting at this point?
DD: Yeah, oh yeah, sure. I would certainly do it.
MJ.com: Ray Lee [president of FNAWS] comments in the story that hunters are closer to nature in the sense that the origin of the culture has to do with connecting with food source on a daily basis, rather than entering into nature for pleasure, or leisure, and then eating meat in styrofoam. But these hunters aren’t in it for sustenance — this is fundamentally sport. So how does the hunter’s connection to the land/animal differ from the hiker or bird watcher’s?
DD: I actually buy the way that Ray Lee put it. Which is the desire to put yourself back into the food chain. I now really feel both sides of the thing. In the sense that, when I go to the Humane Society’s website and read their position paper on hunting that just says they are opposed to killing animals for the fun of it, for sport, it actually makes good sense to me. It makes good moral sense to me and yet I also eat meat.
Eating the bighorn was a big part of it for me. There is this word that comes up in hunting circles, which is the word harvesting. Hunters are pretty scared of, or defensive about, the anti-hunting forces in our culture, and they have pretty shrill defenses and a lot of the language of hunting groups is pretty tortured as a result of feeling persecuted by anti-hunting groups. One of the effects of that is that you never hear hunters say in public statements, or in the stuff you read on websites, or in talking to conservation groups — they never say go kill an animal, they rarely even say go shoot an animal. They say harvest. It’s a word that I sort of quietly thought was bullshit, or sort of soft-pedaling or evasive. Until this trip, again.
MJ.com: What changed your mind?
DD: This was such an unusual killing of a ram. There were so many positive factors at work here. This ram had been chosen for age, the economic development parts of it, the conservation development, habitat preservation. So many positive things were flowing out of the death of that ram. You would have to be pretty strongly committed to the animal welfare position to object to it.
But when I watched [the guide] Ramon Arce butcher that bighorn ram, as soon as the skin came off, as soon as he had really taken the hide off that thing all of the sudden I was just in an open air butcher shop. I didn’t realize that was going to happen to me. I didn’t know I would have that reaction. I didn’t know what reaction I would have, because I feel a reverence for the bighorn. I think the bighorn is a magnificent, mysterious and magical animal and it is really important to me that they are up there inhabiting the airy heights of the mountains that I love.
Suddenly, though, I felt like I was just watching a skilled guy, a skilled butcher butcher an animal — to eat. It could have been a cow, could have been a goat, could have been anything. And that made the word “harvest” feel a little different to me. Because if you are a rancher and you have a bunch of cattle on your property and you want some beef, you go out and kill one. And you harvest it, you butcher it, you put it in the freezer and you have steak for your family for the year.
MJ.com: What do you think the environmentalist misunderstands about hunting and hunters?
DD:One thing would be just how much hunting wakes up your senses to the land around you. I have spent a lot of time in mountains having very positive and transcendent experiences. And just tagging along on a hunt woke up very different senses in my reaction to place.
MJ.com: Like what?
DD: The first day we got to spike camp we dropped all our gear and hiked out to a cluster of rocks that we could hide behind and look up into the canyon where the sheep herd was expected to be. And while we hid down in those rocks and everybody had their glasses and binoculars out and everyone is whispering. I got kind of fascinated by a cholla cactus. I kicked over a piece of it and I thought, ‘I wonder what its like inside them.’ I kicked off one of the sections and I was stepping on it to break it open, ‘is there water inside it, what is inside these things?’
As I was doing this I happened to glance over at Ramon who was looking at me. And he is a very gentle man and he had this grin on his face, that was saying to me, ‘get over here you idiot, you are out in the open, the sheep are going to see you, the sheep are going to see you and run off.’ Even though the sheep were literally a mile away and literally 2000 elevation feet above us. But they have unbelievable eyesight. As soon as I got it I kind of went, ‘Oh God’.
From that moment I felt this eye up on the mountain. It was as if this mountain was animated with this life force, this big sort of pulsing eye in the sky that was looking down at me. Every move I made, every rock that I knocked over with my foot, every time I silhouetted myself against the skyline, I was acutely aware of it, and it made the mountain come alive in a way that I have never felt. And that stayed with me through all the rest of the experience.