Monday, April 2, 2007

U.S. Hunters Flock To Mexico's Deserts To Bag Trophy Game

Boom Offers Income in Remote Areas

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A22

HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- There were men carrying antlers everywhere.

Dozens of them, all hunters from the United States, shuffled forward in lines in the tiny airport here, checking in for flights to Arizona and California. All of them wore camouflage gear and carried rifles in locked cases, and nearly all were toting big racks of deer antlers, their sharp tips wrapped in bits of garden hose and duct tape to protect them in the luggage hold.

"It's like this every day this time of year," said Les Ezell, a Colorado outfitter who has been leading hunting expeditions into the vast desert ranchlands of Sonora state for more than a decade. "I'm seeing more new faces at the airport all the time. Hunting in Mexico is finally becoming known."

Drawn by plentiful wildlife, warm winter weather and an eager host government, a fast-growing number of American hunters are heading to Mexico to shoot deer, doves and desert sheep in what Mexican officials say has become a $300 million a year industry.

About 20,000 foreign hunters, almost all of them U.S. citizens, visited Mexico last year, four times the number that came five years ago. Nearly 57 million acres of private ranchland in Mexico's northern states are open for hunting, about 100 times more land than 10 years ago.

From November to February, vast open spaces of cactus and scrub brush are crisscrossed by U.S. hunters who pay $10,000 a week, and sometimes much more, for private, guided expeditions. They stay in ranch houses or hunting lodges, and rise before dawn to track game, sometimes from custom-built spotting towers bolted to truck beds.

About a decade ago, the government realized it could bring income to Mexico's poor and remote backcountry and moved aggressively to encourage foreign hunting. The federal Environment Ministry set up a program to help ranchers lease land to hunting outfitters and issue hunting permits, and it assigned enforcement officers to regulate the hunters.

The federal government also created new firearms permits that made it relatively easy for foreign hunters to bring in their own high-powered hunting rifles.

The government has lured U.S. hunters with game limits that are generally more liberal than those in the United States. A hunter who might be limited to five ducks a day in Virginia is often allowed to shoot 50 or 100 a day in Mexico.

American hunters have responded like kids at an ice cream sale, drawn by majestic desert hunting grounds that are close to home, where trophy animals are large and plentiful and the weather is warm when many of the main hunting regions in the United States are buried under snow.

"Everybody is happy about this; it's a win-win situation for the people here," said Jorge Luis Molina, an official who oversees hunting in Sonora state, where officials are scrambling to open millions more acres of ranchland to meet the booming demand.

Mexico essentially regards the hunters as tourists with guns -- and lots of money to spend. Tourism is a $10 billion annual industry in Mexico, but it tends to be concentrated in highly-developed beach resorts. Federal officials have struggled to bring a share of that tourism wealth to poorer parts of the country, and they said hunting does just that.

"Hunting is a real alternative for rural development in Mexico, and the potential for growth is huge," said Felipe Ramirez Ruiz, a federal Environment Ministry official and the country's top hunting regulator.

Ramirez said millions of acres of cactus and scrub brush being hunted belong to private ranch owners, who generally use it for grazing cattle or horses. Much of the land is dry and barren, unsuitable for agriculture and providing little income for its owners.

Now, he said, those ranch owners are reaching lucrative lease agreements with Mexican and U.S. outfitters, who pay fees to bring hunters onto the land and for each animal taken. For many ranchers, those fees double their annual income -- or may be the only money they make off their land.

"This money goes to the places where people have next to nothing," said Molina, the Sonora state official, who noted that hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, airlines and many other businesses around this city of 1.5 million also have profited from the influx of U.S. hunters.

Ezell's Sierra Grande Adventures is one of nearly 160 private firms -- up from about 100 two years ago -- that bring U.S. hunters to Mexico, mainly to Sonora and the other five states on the border. Ezell specializes in hunts for mule deer, the smaller Coues deer and desert bighorn sheep. Other outfitters focus on turkey, dove, quail and ducks, which are found in huge numbers and can be killed basically without limits.

Ramirez said government studies have shown that the populations of deer, sheep and migratory birds are actually increasing, since far more are born each year than are killed by hunters. He said officials believe there is plenty of wildlife to support a continued expansion of hunting.

Several environmentalists noted that most Mexicans who live outside the sparsely populated hunting areas don't know about the practice. Juan Bezaury, director of environmental policies for the Nature Conservancy in Mexico, said his group had no objection to the hunting, adding that he hoped the government would expand the number of inspectors as the industry grew.

When Ezell started 12 years ago, he was one of the few outfitters in the area, and he leased hunting rights on four ranches with a total of 100,000 acres. Today, his company is the outfitter on 13 ranches with more than a quarter-million acres.

The hunting isn't cheap, and Ezell said the U.S. hunters tend to be well-to-do businessmen. Deer hunters spend an average of $10,000 each for a week's excursion with Ezell's company, which includes $2,500 in fees for the first deer they kill -- it's $4,500 more if they shoot a second one.

Hunting for bighorn sheep is even pricier. In the United States, permits to hunt those sought-after animals -- with their trademark thick curved horns -- are generally awarded by state-run lotteries, and Ezell said many hunters never get a chance to hunt one. Mexican authorities are also strict about how many sheep can be taken; Ezell had permits to take just nine this season. Those limits drive the price through the roof -- about $30,000 for a week of sheep hunting, plus up to $30,000 more if the hunter kills one.

Ezell said he had one customer in January, a businessman from Fairfax, who spent three weeks hunting in Sonora and shot a bighorn sheep and six deer, running up a tab close to $75,000. Last month, the owner, president and two employees of a large beer and wine wholesale company in Columbus, Ohio, flew down in a private jet to hunt.

Mike Belcher, an account manager from the beverage company, was making his second such trip to Mexico. Two years ago he shot a buck before 9 a.m. on his first day out; the antlers are on his office wall in Columbus. Last week he shot another one early on his first morning.

"It wasn't even sunrise yet -- we had to wait for the sun to come up to take the pictures," said Belcher, 43, who said he had hunted buffalo in Zimbabwe and white-tailed deer in the American Midwest, where it can take hours to spot and kill game.

Belcher and his buddies started their week in Mexico with a morning dove hunt, where they each shot about 50 birds. They gave them to area residents, as they did with all the meat from the deer they shot. It is illegal to bring the fresh meat back into the United States, and they are mainly after the trophy antlers anyway. Belcher said his latest set, a heavy 8-point rack, would soon be on his office wall as well.

Relaxing in the hunters' two-bedroom ranch house, set amid tens of thousands of acres of tall cactus and jagged mountains rising from valley floors, John Fleming, another Ohio hunter, said a few days of tracking deer through such beautiful country was worth the steep price tag.

"They're not making more places like this in the world," he said.

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