Big-game hunting in Sonora boosts economy and conservation

Cattle are part of the operation at Rancho Grande. It also maintains big-game herds, including mule deer and desert bighorn sheep. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

Mule deer and other big game thrive at Rancho Grande, which doubles as a cattle operation and conservation area. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

Outfitter Jim Schaafsma hands a rifle to Brandon Barnwell before heading out for the morning hunt. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

RANCHO GRANDE, Mexico – It’s just after sunrise, and hunting guide Jim Schaafsma is trudging through the brush up a small rise about 60 miles north of Hermosillo. He pauses just shy of the top.

“We should wait until the sun gets a little higher, where we’re not silhouetted,” he whispered. “It’ll be shining in those deers’ eyes.”

He was hoping to give his client Brandon Barnwell a good vantage on the trophy mule deer he had spent thousands of dollars and traveled hundreds of miles for.

Guide Jim Schaafsma (left) and hunter Brandon Barnwell scan the horizon for mule deer at Rancho Grande, which is 60 miles north of Hermosillo, the Sonoran capital. (Photo by Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ)

After a silent half hour waiting for the right-size buck to pass through the draw below the rise, Schaafsma shared his frustration with Barnwell, a fellow Californian.

“We should have had about 20 deer come into there,” he whispered. “I don’t know what in the hell.”

“They weren’t happy about something,” Barnwell replied.

He and Schaafsma were scouring a piece of 48,000-acre Rancho Grande, a major cattle operation that doubles as a hunting preserve. Stretching over rolling hills tangled with mesquite, ironwood and paloverde, it still raises beef, but as a designated conservation-management area, the ranch also supports sizable herds of healthy mule deer. With high-protein feed and breeding programs, some of the deer are managed in ways akin to the cows they share the ranch with. Rancho Grande also raises desert bighorn sheep, which are highly prized by hunters.

Such arrangements have benefited Sonoran ranchers and game populations, which were seriously compromised before the public-private management areas were established.

Big game, big business

Barnwell could pay up to $15,000 for a successful deer hunt. A desert bighorn sheep hunt can command several times that price, sometimes as high as $100,000.

Sonoran officials estimate up to $30 million in economic impact this season: hotel stays, outfitter fees, food, hunting tags, tips to guides and other costs for organizing hunts.

However, the state agency that oversees the hunts, known by the acronym SAGARHPA, sees comparatively little of that money. According to information provided to KJZZ in response to a public-records request, it has taken in about $140,000 in tag sales so far this year.

Currently, all hunting tags, regardless of species, cost roughly $16 each, according to records and officials. Requiring licenses for foreign hunters – as they are for Mexican nationals – as well as higher tag fees for certain species to increase revenue, have been discussed, but those changes would require federal legislation, an official said.

Hunting also is a lifeline for ranchers. Jesus Fimbres, whose family owns Rancho Grande, says having two revenue streams to depend on has been a big part of their success.

“Sometimes the money comes very good from the wildlife, sometimes they come from the cow operation,” he said. “So we’ve got to do both things.”

Conservation consciousness

Fimbres’ ranch is what is known as a conservation management unit, known as a UMA. Getting that status, which allows his family to run hunts on the property, requires developing a management plan for the sustainable use of wildlife. There are now more than 1,600 of them in Sonora, adding up to more than 18 million acres.

“There wasn’t consciousness before,” said Marco Antonio Valenzuela Martinez, head of forestry and wildlife at the Sonoran agriculture department. “But starting with the concept of the UMA, in which every producer or ranch registers as an UMA and dedicates themselves to that activity, the care of those species became more important, because they realized the value they have.”

In Schaafsma’s nearly 30 years guiding hunts in Sonora with his company Arrow Five Outfitters in Zenia, California, he has seen that change in mindset.

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“When we first came down, the mule deer were just about gone,” he said. “They were overshooting the mule deer, killing the young ones, shooting them all. They were just worried about how much they could make that year, and not the future.”

The desert bighorn sheep population also has seen improvement, said Raul Valdez, professor emeritus at New Mexico State University’s department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology. He has studied wild sheep all around the world, including Mexico.

“If it were not for the private enterprise, there would be very few sheep in Mexico, as there were beginning in the 1970s and early 1980s,” he said. “Before sheep hunting became a major economic enterprise in Mexico.”

As Valdez sees it, hunting is a more effective conservation tool than ecotourism because most tourists require substantial infrastructure investment, and will only go to areas with major wildlife concentrations.

Hunters, on the other hand, “Are willing to live in a tent in the most extreme conditions, and pay thousands and thousands of dollars for the opportunity to do so,” he said.

Cesar Alonso de Leon Nuñez, head of wildlife at SAGARHPA, said UMAs that raise bighorn sheep are obligated to help repopulate the species’ historic habitat. Fimbres told KJZZ that his ranch released dozens of sheep to free-range areas of the property last year.

Patience pays off

Back at Rancho Grande, Barnwell’s patience has eventually paid off.

“We’re up on the hill where we were in the morning, so you know kind where we were,” he said. “We waited at least 20 minutes for a clean shot.”

With a few days of hunting still left, he said Sonora had already exceeded his expectations, and he was happy to tell his friends back home about it.

“I’ve already texted them, and I told them to start saving their money so they can come down,” he said with a laugh.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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