Airguns Making an Ecological Difference in Puerto Rico

Airguns are proving to be highly effective management tools against invasive iguanas in Puerto Rico.

Airguns Making an Ecological Difference in Puerto Rico

We primarily have three classifications of animals that can be hunted with air rifles, depending on the state in which the hunt takes place: game animals, pest species and predators.

Most states allow airguns for the taking of smaller pest species, many allow predators to be taken, and an ever-growing number of jurisdictions are permitting airguns for small and large game. However, pest control/varminting arguably remains the most common application for airguns.

Animals that tend to overpopulate, carry disease, cause damage to the environment, damage to property, or are nonindigenous and displace native species are typically 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. Poisoning is effective but non-specific and negatively impacts other species, and many are controlled by shooting with rimfire or small-bore centerfire rifles. However, there are situations where firearms can’t be used due to safety concerns, noise control, or legality. I often am asked if I believe airguns are effective tools for serious pest control. 

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 into their burrows. With the right techniques, airgun hunters can get close enough for a shot but the process is time consuming. A hunter using a small-bore centerfire might take 300-400 of these burrowing rodents in a day, yet 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 area, which are ideally suited for airgun hunters. While admittedly anecdotal, I have seen several pastures reclaimed using airguns where in the past poisons would have been laid. 

Making a Difference

But 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 their efficacy for pest control. I visited Puerto Rico at a Hatsan USA sponsored iguana shoot. I’d visited this farm to cull these large, invasive reptiles 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 wreaking havoc on local farmers' ability to raise crops. We would shoot a hundred one day and not see a difference the next day. It was not unusual to to walk by a tree and see 20 iguanas in the branches. Besides crops being destroyed and structures being undermined by their burrowing, they also were denuding surrounding forests.

A perfectly reasonable question is why are iguanas out of control and why kill them? The answer is straightforward: iguanas are not native to Puerto Rico. It is believed that pet owners released a few that had gotten too big and mean to care for, and the population exploded to well over 4 million in a few short years. That’s more iguanas than people on the island.

Three or four years ago, Hatsan USA president Blain Manifold was meeting with his dealer in Puerto Rico. he learned 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 well-known hunting publications, with the additional objective of helping 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 export of iguana meat (due to regulatory red tape). Although the large number of iguanas killed 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. Where the population was counted in the thousands three years ago, it was counted in the hundreds this year. 

The hurricane destroyed much of the island’s forests and they still haven’t recovered, but other farms and properties without culling operations 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 and 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 firearms outside of tightly controlled environments (gun clubs and ranges) is prohibited, and airguns are the only practical option.

Hunting the Iguanas

I had to work for my shots on this trip: the iguanas were sparser, the post-hurricane landscape looked post-apocalyptic in some areas. Complete forest were reduced to tangles of overturned trees. The little stream that had run along a gently sloping river bottom was now at the bottom of a huge ravine with sheer 50-foot sheer walls. It also was hot and humid; I was as close to heat stroke as I’ve ever been.

By walking along the road or through the plantain groves bordering the ravine, I was at eye level or shooting down into the remaining trees. While I did occasionally find a tree with several lizards, for the most part there were no more than a couple. On the last trip most of my shots were straight up into the trees braced against the trunk; on this trip the majority were either prone or sitting shooting down into the flood-carved ravines.

I used the Hatsan AirMax .22, the BullBoss .25, and the FlashPup .25, and for all three guns shot the H&N Hunter Extreme pellets. All three of these bullpups worked well but I especially liked the AirMax, though would have preferred it in .25 caliber. I stuck with headshots. While the .22 hit hard and penetrated well, on the large 5-foot plus iguanas a second shot was sometimes needed while the .25 was much more effective in producing one-shot kills. On smaller lizards in the 3-foot range, caliber 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.

How to Book Your Hunting Trip

If you’d like to book an iguana hunt in Puerto Rico, there are several outfitting services now available to help you setup your own island hunting adventure> Here are two that have been getting a positive buzz:

Iguana Hunting Tours A service that will set you up on a great iguana hunt with virtually unlimited shooting. These guys have great properties and know their stuff! They can supply guns and air, or you can bring your own. iguanahuntingtourspr.com 
581 Baston St, Caguas, R 00727 (787) 948-2136

Hunt Iguana This service offers exceptional hunting opportunity for the invasive green iguanas, and can supply rifles and air or you can bring your own. Iguana hunts can be combined with a black caiman hunt if you want to up the ante on your island hunt! huntiguana@gmail.com 
1316 W. Amanda Lane Tempe AZ 85284

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