Can Airguns Make a Difference?
Jim Chapman is back in Puerto Rico after problem lizards
M y understanding is that in the UK, all species hunted with airguns are classified as vermin or pests. In the USA, we have two primary types of small quarry available to airgunners; game species, such as squirrel, rabbit, turkey, quail; and vermin, such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels, pigeons, and Eurasian collared doves. There are also larger species classified as predators, such as coyote, fox, and bobcats. It might seem a little confusing, but animals can transcend classifications: In some states, bobcat and fox are also fur bearers, and in certain scenarios rabbits and squirrels become pest animals. What’s important is that when an animal is classified as ‘game’ it has certain protections; limits, seasons, and methods of take, whereas an animal classified as a pest, varmint or predator can generally be taken at any time, in any number, by any method of take.
Animals that tend to overpopulate, cause damage to the environment, be a vector for disease, cause damage to property, or are not indigenous and displace native species, are typically – but not always – classified as pest species. There are limited methods available to control these pest populations; trapping, poisoning, or shooting being the most commonly employed. Trapping can be effective for some species and poisoning is effective, but non-specific and negatively impacts other species. In our country, these species are often shot with firearms, but there are situations where firearms can’t be used due to safety concerns, noise control, or legality. I am often asked whether or not I believe airguns are effective enough to make a difference.
THE RIGHT SITUATION
There are certain situations where I believe airguns can contribute as part of a broader management strategy. Prairie dogs can occur in the thousands, and the majority won’t let a human within 100 yards before diving down their burrows. With the right techniques, airgun hunters can get in close enough for a shot, but the process is time consuming, and where a hunter using a small bore centrefire might take 300- 400 of these burrowing rodents in a day, 50 is a great day’s bag for an airgunner, but there are areas around livestock, active farming operations, and outbuildings or equipment where a firearm (even a rimfire) is not practical. These are usually smaller dog towns over a more limited range, which are ideally suited for airgun hunters, and whilst it is admittedly anecdotal, I have seen several pastures reclaimed by using airguns, where in the past poisons would have been laid.
I’m going to tell you about a situation in which airguns alone have provided a solution, and I think represents a great example of our efficacy as pest controllers. This week, I have been in Puerto Rico at a Hatsan- sponsored iguana shoot. I was last on this farm three years ago, and there is a marked difference in the scope of the problem between these trips. On my first visit, there were literally hundreds of iguanas across the entire farm, which significantly impacted the ability to raise crops. We would shoot a hundred one day, and on returning to the same area the next, would not see a difference. It was not unusual to walk by a tree and see 20 iguanas aloft in the branches. Besides crops being destroyed and structures being undermined by these lizards burrowing, they were also denuding the surrounding forests.
A REASONABLE QUESTION
A perfectly reasonable question is, ‘ Why are iguanas out of control and why kill them?’ The answer is straightforward: On the island of Puerto Rico, iguanas are not native. It is believed that pet owners let a few go and the population is now estimated at approximately four million. That’s more iguanas than people on the island, and they are everywhere! There have been articles on the National Geographic website, Wall Street journal, and New York Times about the damage being done to Puerto Rico’s environment, economy, and infrastructure.
Three or four years ago, the president of Hatsan USA, Blain Manifold, was meeting with his dealer in Puerto Rico, who explained that the upswing in airgun sales was related to groups trying to reduce the iguana numbers. He was taken to a small farm and had the opportunity to see the damage done first- hand. A couple management schemes were underway; one was to export the meat to Central America where it is considered a delicacy, and the other was to set up varmint hunting outfitters. These options served a double purpose; to remove/reduce the out- of- control population, and secondly, to provide a revenue stream to the local communities. Blain started working with locals to put on events to showcase his products, but also to bring
awareness of the problem. The first event was attended by writers from several of the well- known American hunting publications, with the additional objective of helping to spread the word about the use of airguns as valid hunting tools.
We hunted iguana, wrote several articles and accomplished our goals, improved awareness of airguns, started the reduction of iguanas on this one farm, and got the word out. There are now several guides bringing visitors on iguana hunts, which has turned out a much more practical solution than the export of iguana meat, due to regulatory red tape. Although the large number of iguanas harvested on that first hunt hardly put a dent in the population, it was a start. There have been several iguana shoots and continued pressure on the farm, and where the population was counted in the hundreds three years ago, it was counted in the tens this year.
Now it’s true that the hurricane wreaked havoc on the island, and they still haven’t recovered, but other farms and properties without hunting have not seen an appreciable decline in the population. The major difference is that two or three times per year there is a large- scale iguana shoot. No poison has been used, trapping doesn’t work, but culling them with an airgun does. Another question that bubbles up in this discussion is, ‘ Why not use a rimfire?” In Puerto Rico the use of a firearm outside of controlled environments, such as gun clubs and ranges, is prohibited so airguns are the only practical option.
I really had to work for my shots on this trip. The iguanas were sparser, the post- hurricane landscape looked post- apocalyptic in some areas. Complete forests were reduced to tangles of overturned trees, and the little stream that had run along a gently sloping river bottom was now at the bottom of a huge ravine with 50 foot sheer walls containing it. It was also hot and humid and I was as close to heatstroke as I’ve ever been.
I found that when walking along the road, or through the plantain groves bordering the edge of the ravine, I was at eye level or shooting down into the remaining trees. Whilst I did occasionally find a tree with several lizards, for the most part there were no more than a couple. On the last trip the majority of my shots were straight up into the trees, braced against the trunk – on this trip the majority were either prone or sitting.
I used the Hatsan AirMax .22, the BullBoss .25, and the FlashPup .25, and for all three guns shot H& N Hunter Extreme pellets. All three of these ‘pups worked well, but I especially liked the AirMax, although would have preferred it in .25 calibre. I stuck with headshots, and while the .22 hit hard and penetrated well, on the large fivefoot-plus iguanas, a second shot was sometimes needed, whilst the .25 was much more effective in producing oneshot kills. On the smaller lizard in the three-foot range, calibre didn’t seem to matter much.
So, to revisit the question posed at the beginning of this article, I would say, ‘Yes, airguns can be an effective means of reducing pest populations.’ I’ve heard non-hunters accuse us of using the ‘pest control’ card to justify what they see as meaningless slaughter for fun, but I would argue that when done at the appropriate scale to place pressure on pest species, it is very effective and can reduce or remove the reliance on poison. Further, I would argue it is the most humane method that allows specific targeting of the problem species.
MAIN: I really enjoyed the Hatsan FlashPup in .25 BELOW: Rolling up to the farm with a truckload of gear!
BELOW: I set up a rest station in whatever shade I could find, with cooler, air, and other gear
LEFT: it was far less common to find them out in the open, compared to my previous visit
ABOVE: Iguanas would pop out of a clump of leaves, then just as quickly drop out of sight