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Sacrificial Ram

Conservation groups think they?ve found a way to save endangered animals--by selling off the right to kill a few.

 

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."

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