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.'"