I'm asking because I wasn't certain of my own answer, even as I hid in the red rimrock of the Tres Virgines volcano, looking into Canyon 33—so-called by the locals because another gringo hunter once took 33 shots to get his ram down there. Nine Mexican guides, all in ragtag outfits of cast-off camo—a green Army surplus shirt here, a Desert Storm jacket there—were likewise huddled low, and Ramon Arce, their 62-year-old leader, was whispering to the hunter, Brian Drettmann, about which ram Drettmann should kill.
I'd never watched an animal shot in the wild, much less a rare and threatened one, and I found myself transfixed. Given the austere mountain keeps they inhabit, the eyesight that lets them see humans a mile away, and the specialized hooves that allow them to rockclimb at breathtaking speeds, not many people get the privilege of seeing a bighorn, much less killing one. In California's Sierra Nevada, bighorn are also so close to extinction that it's a federal crime just to go backpacking in their prime habitat. And now, by the grace of Arce's skill, we were all peering into the fog at 28 lambs, rams, and ewes as if they were just your average backyard deer. More astounding still, they were eating precisely the yellow desert flowers that Arce had made us all smell earlier in the morning -- “los borregos,” he'd said with a smile, gesturing at his weathered nose. “The bighorn,” he said, meaning, “They smell like this plant. I love this smell.”
I was transfixed, too, by Drettmann, the polite 36-year-old Midwesterner about to do the shooting, and by the fact that he wasn't second-guessing Arce. He had to feel a temptation, I figured, to get one of the Mexicans who spoke good English to ask Arce just what he thought that ram would score in the Boone and Crockett system for rating horns and antlers. One-sixty, maybe? One-seventy? Or even higher? And what about those other rams in the frigid winter fog: Any chance they were bigger still? After all, in an auction pitting him against other big-game hunters, Drettmann had paid dearly for this once-in-a-lifetime shot at a desert bighorn, the most prized of the four wild sheep species that comprise a North American “grand slam.” Drettmann had already bagged an Alaskan Dall sheep and a Stone's sheep in British Columbia, and he'd wandered halfway across Alberta looking for a Rocky Mountain bighorn, and now he'd flown clear down here from the woods of northern Michigan, hassled his firearm through customs, driven hundreds of desert miles, ridden a mule into the high country, weathered a savage overnight storm in a substandard nylon tent -- the floor flooding, drenched porters cowering under the mesquite trees and praying for deliverance -- and pushed himself to exhaustion to get to this vantage point.
Chambering a shell in his gun, Drettmann was understandably nervous, his big frame shaking and his fair cheeks flushed red. Two days earlier, on an empty desert road, I'd watched as he calibrated his rifle to shoot a few inches high at 150 yards; that way the slug would fall to dead level in the crosshairs by 300 yards, the closest he expected to get. But now the range finder wasn't working and he had to take a guess, which wasn't easy for a guy more used to eyeballing distance by white cedars than by yucca trees. Worse still, with these clouds coming and going, it wouldn't be hard to kill the wrong ram, and that would be a small disaster.
After all, Drettmann wasn't stalking this animal just for fun. In an unusual approach to environmental fundraising -- call it free-market wildlife conservation -- the Wyoming-based Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) has struck deals with 21 U.S., Canadian, and Mexican states in which FNAWS gets to auction a precious few bighorn hunting permits in return for giving 90 percent of the proceeds back to those states' sheep conservation programs. Drettmann had paid tens of thousands of dollars to come down here, further encouraged by the fact that the hunt would occur on a southern Baja ejido, a form of government-mandated collective property. Because this land also falls within the Vizcaino Biosphere—the Mexican equivalent of a wilderness area, and therefore closed to most forms of development—the 142 indigenous rural families of ejido Licensiado Alfredo V. Bonfil don't have many ways to make a living. Since 1996, however, the FNAWS auction system has brought them an average of $200,000 a year, funding a drinking water project, a school, a health clinic, conservation programs centered on the nearly extinct Baja pronghorn antelope and the Baja mule deer, and, of course, the bighorn project that employs the dozen ejidatarios who'd spent the past few weeks gauging the age and size of every ram in the range to make sure Drettmann got the biggest rack possible.
In other words, by helping locals exploit the economic potential of the wildlife on their land, FNAWS has given the collective an incentive to preserve both that wildlife and its habitat. Since FNAWS got involved, ejidatarios have been clearing brush around watering holes to reduce cover for stalking mountain lions, they've taught their neighbors to keep domestic goats and sheep (and the lethal diseases they carry) away from the bighorn, and they've successfully cracked down on poaching. As a result, there may well be less sheep hunting within the Vizcaino Biosphere, where four permits are granted annually, than in areas of northern Baja, where an outright ban is in place but not enforced. “In the old days, sheep hunters would come in and hire ejidatarios to take them on the hunt, and the money did not go to the ejido,” says Ramón Castellanos, the ejido's chief sheep biologist. “But now everybody in the ejido wants the bighorn because it means business for them. It means money.”
In just seven years, the biosphere's bighorn herd has nearly doubled, to 400. And the more sheep there are, the more rams can be sustainably harvested, a fact that was evident in the eyes of the ejidatarios who'd guided Drettmann up the volcano and pinpointed the gigantic animal for him. Drettmann peered through the mist and exchanged soft whispers with his longtime hunting companion, Tim Gauthier, a silver-bearded professional guide and wildlife filmmaker who was quietly shooting the entire scene for one of the wildlife and hunting shows he produces for television—past titles include Orca, the Sacred Whale; Wildlife Serenade; and White Tail Extreme: The Ultimate Bowhunt. Any minute now, Arce -- whose own father guided sheep hunts here in the 1930s -- would give Drettmann the all clear to take a shot, and if Drettmann's aim was true, and a rare 200-pound wild sheep dropped dead in the volcanic rocks, every one of these men would know he had done his job, that the project of bringing these animals back to healthy numbers would be a step closer to completion.
ACCORDING TO VALERIUS GEIST, a wildlife biologist and author of several books on wild sheep, the wake-up call on their dwindling numbers came back in 1974, when the National Audubon Society, the Wildlife Management Institute, and the Boone and Crockett Club, a century-old hunting conservation group, held a workshop at the University of Montana, Missoula. Over the course of the gathering, it emerged that habitat reduction, overhunting by meat suppliers to the early railroad builders and gold rush miners, and, most of all, the diseases borne by domestic cattle and sheep had all but wiped out North America's wild sheep, which now occupied less than 4 percent of their original range. To the hunters present, the implied tragedy wasn't just aesthetic or even ecological -- it was also practical: Future generations wouldn't have the same hunting opportunities they'd had. Sheep hunting was already banned in most states, and the few that allowed it only did so through a lottery for a handful of permits.
At first, those hunters just shared what they knew about sheep hunts that were still available and tried to make state officials prioritize sheep conservation. But by the late '70s, it was clear there would never be enough political traction to save the bighorn from extinction. So they incorporated FNAWS as a nonprofit and in 1979 started approaching the various states with wild sheep populations and saying, in essence, Give us one or two sheep hunting permits, we'll auction them to the highest bidder, and we'll give the proceeds right back to you, earmarked for conservation.
For those perplexed by people who want to save wild animals in order to kill them, the confusion will deepen during a flip through magazines like Big Game Adventure. Right alongside an article celebrating how FNAWS auctions help ejidatarios “learn about the economic value of wildlife and continued conservation practices” lie advertisements that make a liberal worry he's in NRA-wacko territory after all. “For 30 years,” reads one full-page spread, “the Safari Club International has been a tireless champion against extremist groups attacking your right to hunt.… Join the hunter patriots helping freedom ring.” Although this language has a rhetorical toxicity outside of hunting culture, groups like FNAWS, which now has 19,000 members and has auctioned the right to kill a single Rocky Mountain bighorn for as much as $405,000, are part of an old tradition in American hunting, one that has seen a dramatic resurgence in the last few years. It was President Theodore Roosevelt -- arguably the godfather of American hunting conservation -- who wrote, “In a civilized country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen. The excellent people who protest against all hunting and consider sportsmen as enemies [do not understand] that in reality the genuine sportsman is, by all odds, the most important factor in keeping the larger and more valuable wild creatures from total extermination.” And while groups like the American Humane Society make reasonable arguments against any form of killing for sport, many in the environmental community applaud what FNAWS has done. Tom Stephenson, a bighorn sheep biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, says, “When hunters get interested in an animal, it's often the best thing that can happen to that species.”
David Lavigne, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is often critical of "sustainable use" proponents who advocate the economic exploitation of wildlife as a conservation tool—such as the recent decision by the Venezuelan government to back off a ban on the trapping of macaws in favor of granting indigenous locals the right to sell a small number, thereby giving them incentive to preserve the birds and their habitat. FNAWS is different, says Lavigne, in that the hunts provide conservation funds without promoting a larger marketplace for endangered wildlife. "I would rather have a skillful hunter take one or two bighorn and provide conservation revenues," says Lavigne, "than have a commercial hunt, which attracts all sorts of folks into this business, killing many more animals."
FNAWS itself currently auctions 25 to 30 permits per year, generating more than $2 million annually, for a to-date total of more than $24 million. Since FNAWS got rolling, wild sheep populations have rebounded fourfold, and if any reader of this magazine gets a chance to glimpse one someday, they will arguably owe some measure of thanks to people whose favorite way to view a ram is through the crosshairs of a rifle scope. The same goes for many other wild animals, as hunting-based conservation groups like the Mule Deer Foundation and even the Safari Club International have followed the FNAWS example. "If you want to see cowboys cry," says Geist, "just go to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. These men care so much they get all choked up." Then there are the waterfowl groups like Ducks Unlimited: Founded in 1937, it has raised $1.8 billion for conservation and saved more than 10 million acres of wetlands.
In the view of Ray Lee, the current president of FNAWS, "A lot of antihunting types make the mistake of looking at the individual animal as most important." A former Arizona state fish and game of-ficial and university lecturer on wildlife biology, Lee is a fair-skinned and slender man with intense blue eyes, a deep voice, and an air of preternatural self-control. "By doing that," he says, "you forgo the population. When a person thinks of what the hunter is doing as merely killing an individual animal, then they're saying, ‘This can't be right.' I look at it and say, ‘If I can take an individual hunter and use this person's resources to do good for a population…that's a fantastic approach.'"
THE INDIVIDUAL HUNTER with resources in this case, of course, was the friendly and diffident Brian Drettmann, from the tony Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. His grandfather founded Active Tool and Manufacturing, an automotive manufacturing concern that sold for more than $300 million in 1999, but Drettmann himself was never happy in Michigan high society. He describes his adolescence as particularly rocky, and says that hunting gave him a way out. He got his first taste of it on the farm of family friend Martin Merkel. When Merkel took him to a FNAWS convention, it made such an impression that Drettmann eventually put hunting and wildlife conservation at the center of his life.
Drettmann doesn't fit the classic image of the hunter. He does have a somewhat rural Midwestern accent, from all his time in the woods, but he's also highly conversant in the set lists of mid-'80s Grateful Dead shows, and he speaks of Neil Young, whom he has met, as "Uncle Neil." His style of dress is still inflected by the preppy private schools of his youth, and there's a certain effortless, shabby-chic refinement to the way he holds a cigarette and enjoys an evening cocktail, even in a rough hunting camp. But Drettmann has immersed himself in hunting culture. While he has speculative real estate holdings from Florida to Costa Rica, Drettmann's primary business and part-time home is a thousand-acre Michigan ranch where clients pay top dollar to bow-hunt whitetail deer in perfect seclusion. (Opening day of Michigan's deer season can see tens of thousands of hunters with bows and shotguns traipsing around the forests, so the privacy and relative safety of his ranch are of genuine value.) And Merkel's influence has also been a lasting one. A few years ago, Drettmann donated $12,000 for the FNAWS-sponsored construction of a watering hole in Arizona in order to lure sheep back to the area; a plaque he had mounted on a nearby stone dedicates the spot to Merkel.
In January 2004, Drettmann flew out to the annual FNAWS convention in Reno, Nevada, to bid on the hunt that brought him to Baja. The auction was held in a casino ballroom with stuffed sheep mounted in various poses and a backlit screen of a starry night sky. "It's sort of a glitz and glimmer, the whole layout," recalls Gauthier, who videotaped the event. "The majority of the people buying these auctions are not your average Joe. It's usually people with jack." A scantily clad model displayed prints and sculptures also on auction, and when the bidding finally began, at a floor of $25,000, Drettmann's competitors included Kevin Rinke, who made his fortune from a conglomeration of Michigan car dealerships. Rinke needed one more desert bighorn to complete his second grand slam, and the bidding jumped to $40,000 in less than a minute.
In Gauthier's footage, the auctioneer, dressed in boots and hat and Wranglers, rambles in the classic rhythm of his trade, as if straight out of a Texas livestock show. As the numbers start climbing, Drettmann "was getting pretty geeked," according to Gauthier. "But he was staying calm, too. When you're spending that kind of money you don't go just yahooing." Drettmann and Rinke are going mano-a-mano, bidding back and forth, until Drettmann bids $48,000, and Rinke drops out. But it's not over. Another bidder from the back of the room joins in—$49,000. When the bidding climbs to $56,000, Drettmann grins and shakes his head, as if ready to quit. "Now you been with us all this way," the auctioneer calls out to him, "I sure don't want to sell you out now." So Drettmann gives the nod -- $57,000 -- and his competitor counters, $58,000. "Go have a swig out of that Bloody Mary," the auctioneer bellows to Drettmann. "Have a swig. There you go. Now give me $59,000. It's only money!" Half laughing at himself, Drettmann nods one more time and the delighted auctioneer calls out to the man in the back, "Okay! Give me 60! You never saw a U-Haul Trailer behind a hearse! You'll have a great hunt, and we only live once. You don't want to tell your friends I gave $59,000 for this hunt! You want to go in there and say this wasn't no blue-light special at Wal-Mart!"
But the mystery gunman is done. And while that lovely, leggy model stands on the stage with the next item to auction -- a 270 Winchester Short Mag rifle -- Ray Lee congratulates Drettmann on a winning bid of $59,000.
ELEVEN MONTHS LATER, Drettmann's hunt began at the dusty Bonfil base camp, where he immediately offered Arce a carton of his own cigarettes, so they'd share the same smokes on this adventure. Drettmann tested his gun and enjoyed a scoping mission below the grand conical volcano. Arce and another guide, José Luis Chavarria, used an enormous pair of antique binoculars—and Drettmann's top-drawer Leica spotting scope—to pick out sheep more than a mile away, and there was a lot of careful calculation about the various rams visible. Were they Class Three? Or Class Four? (Meaning, between six and eight years old, or more than eight and therefore old enough to harvest.) And how high would their racks score?
Early the next morning, Drettmann and Gauthier followed on mules while the guides and I walked, and by mid-afternoon we'd reached "spike camp." The ejidatarios built a fire, set up tents for their leaders and for us gringos, and jury-rigged rock-and-tarp shanties for themselves. An utterly wild storm hit around midnight, with 50-mile-an-hour gusts driving firehose downpours, and at 4 a.m., when the sky cleared, the soaking-wet guides built another fire and huddled around it.
Drettmann was the first of the gringos awake, and by 7 a.m. he'd remounted. When the going got too steep for the mules, Drettmann joined the guides on foot, carrying his rifle and spotting scope while Gauthier lugged a big Betamax video camera. After several hours, Arce indicated that it was time for whispering and stealth, led us quietly to the edge of Canyon 33, and gestured down at those 28 ewes, lambs, and rams. While Gauthier filmed everything, Arce and Chavarria whispered back and forth, agreeing on which ram was the biggest and the oldest, and then came the moment of truth—time to pull the trigger. Turning to Arce, Drettmann double-checked which ram they had in mind. Pushing his wire-rimmed eyeglasses back up his sweat-beaded nose, he asked, "It's the ram that's eating, right? His head's in the bush right now?"
The answer mattered partly because a Mexican game warden would be checking to make sure they took a ram old enough to be legal—at least nine years of age, nearing the end of its expected life span -- and partly because Drettmann wasn't the only one who wanted the ram's rack to be a big one. Getting a substantial score in the Boone and Crockett record books -- 170 or higher -- would be a feather in Drettmann's cap, but for the locals it could dramatically raise the price fetched at next year's auction, where Gauthier's video would be shown before bidding began.
Arce peered through the absurdly large binoculars and nodded as he whispered to Chavarria, who translated: "He's eating at the tree by the big rock."
"I mean, is his ass facing uphill?" Drettmann asked. "Is he the one I can see his ass?"
It took another series of barely whispered and poorly translated exchanges to establish that Drettmann was to shoot the ram quartered to us, facing downhill and to the left. While he found that ram in his crosshairs, Chavarria spoke up again. "Wait, wait," he said. "There's a ewe behind the ram. Let the ewe move." A rifle bullet could easily go right through the ram and take the ewe too, and then there would be papers to file with the government, explanations to be made, a sense of things gone awry.
Then Arce hissed, "Okay, listo."
Chavarria translated: "All clear."
The gun's detonation echoed around the mountain, and the sheep startled to attention. A furtive panic swept through the crowd while Arce allowed himself a soft groan. A golden light filtered across the blue Sea of Cortez, far below, and the fog cleared a little, and it became evident that Drettmann had missed. But now the range finder was working. "One-seventy-six," whispered another of the guides, eager to get Drett- mann a second chance. "It's reading 176." So Drettmann laid the scope back on the ram. "Then I took a breath," Drettmann recalled later, referring to the slow exhale that steadies a trigger finger. "And I just squeezed, and said, ‘Hail Mary and Lord bring this one in,' and then they said, ‘You hit it!' I was just, you know, it was like living a dream. I don't know if you've ever…I one time flipped a car, and I totaled it, and I walked out of the car and everything was in slow motion. By the time I walked up to that ram, I was in awe."
DESPITE THEIR CONVERGING interests, a striking divide still separates the rhetoric of hunters, whose culture comes out of farming and ranching, and environmentalists, who often live in an urban world and see untrammeled wilderness as a priceless sanctuary. It's another of our tedious "two Americas," and hunting culture is especially rife with a defensive loathing toward "antis," meaning antihunting types. FNAWS's Lee, for example, expresses frustration about people who don't like copper mines, but enjoy turning on the lights; people who want clean energy, but don't want wind farms in their back yards. He sees a similar double standard toward killing animals, "people saying, ‘I like to eat steak, but I don't want anything to do with the killing. So long as I can go to Safeway and buy a piece of meat wrapped in plastic, then my hands are clean.' If I'm raised in an urban situation, then I don't have to make the life-and-death decisions that people living close to the ground have to. If you talk to a farmer or a rancher, that's what they do. They raise food."
Lee explains that hunting transforms the way you look at the land. "You're out there thinking, ‘Did an animal pass this way? Are there tracks, or tears on the bushes, or rubs?' While a skier might just be thinking, ‘Can I ski here?' a hunter's looking at the whole food chain, the interconnectivity. When you ask hunters, they'll say, ‘I'm reconnecting with nature. I'm putting myself back in. Because for the other 363 days a year, I'm getting Styrofoam food. For two days, I'm reconnecting with what the last 3 million years of human existence have been.'"
After that big ram dropped dead in the rocks, and 27 other sheep sprinted single file through a sheer precipice, running for their lives—a magnificent spectacle—the ejidatarios lit up with relief and passed around a bottle of tequila. Drettmann was visibly elated and shaking with adrenaline, a cigarette trembling in his fingers. A red-tailed hawk looped into the returning stillness of the now-vacant canyon and two crows—los cuervos—chased away the hawk. Then we picked our way down a cliff to the scene of the kill. The big, dun-colored animal appeared to have simply fallen over on its side, a clean entry wound visible in front of its rear leg. The bullet had exited at the opposite foreleg, meaning it had been a perfect shot—right through the lungs, and perhaps the heart. The ram had died so quickly it hadn't even had time to bleed; its eyes remained wide open, as if still watching us, impassive.
Arce gestured at the ram's brow and told me to smell, so I pressed my nose into the forehead of that still-warm corpse and smelled precisely the earthy scent of the blossoming desert plant he'd pointed out in the soft dawn glow. The next hour was devoted to photographs—the ejidatarios with the ram, Drettmann with the ram, everyone individually with the ram, myself included. And then Chavarria sank a hook-billed knife into the skin behind the ram's head and began the long dorsal cut that would let Arce cape the whole hide for the taxidermist Drettmann would hire back home.
A taxidermist uses nothing but the skin, the hooves, and the part of the skull that anchors the horns—Drettmann would order a foam form, around which the skin would be stretched—but Arce left the entire head intact and the bottom leg bone attached to each foot, so the painstaking jobs of separating hooves from bone and facial skin and lips from skull could be done back at base camp. Passing this 60-pound mass to a goat-herd's son named Pancho, who strapped it to his back, Arce then butchered the remaining carcass, stuffing big slabs of meat into plastic garbage bags so the men could carry them down the mountain for a big fiesta a few days later. Leaving behind only the spinal cord and the viscera, we hiked downward, a long and ankle-twisting stumble back to spike camp. For the last hour, we walked in the desert darkness toward a campfire that was like an orange beacon twinkling below. Over a bed of mesquite embers, Arce and Chavarria grilled tacos de borregos cimarrones and ate them standing up in the cold desert night, and I found out for myself what big-game hunters the world over will tell you: that literally nothing tastes better than the tenderized backstrap of a freshly killed big- horn ram, cooked over an open flame.