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Big Horn Bruhaha

Reintroducing sheep to historic Arizona range proving divisive

Reintroduction of bighorn sheep in Arizona mountains has been surrounded by controversy. (Courtesy Ariz. Game and Fish) Reintroduction of bighorn sheep in Arizona mountains has been surrounded by controversy. (Courtesy Ariz. Game and Fish)

By: Lee Allen, Special to OutdoorChannel.com

There’s an elephant in the room and it’s not the standard 15,000-pound variety with 10-foot long tusks. This one comes in the form of a desert bighorn sheep weighing in at a couple hundred pounds with massive horns that account for 10 percent of their body weight.

And there’s no gray area in this conundrum. You’re either in full support of -- or in vocal opposition to -- the prospect of reintroducing bighorn into the Catalina Mountain range surrounding Tucson, Ariz., once their historical home until they were extirpated because of factors such as urbanization and predation.

Those factors still play a part in the current game management effort, particularly the mountain lion issue where jaws and claws have taken out most of the 16 sheep that have died to date. That’s a 50 percent mortality rate out of the 31 transfers that arrived in November 2013. And for doing what mountain lions do to survive, three of the predatory cats have been killed at the direction of the Arizona Game & Fish Department.

Highly-vocal detractors call the project “an ill-conceived effort to micromanage nature.” Sportsmen supporters say the loud opposition reflects inflamed emotions of a misguided public. Nonetheless, the group, Friends of Wild Animals, is calling for a moratorium on further sheep reintroduction or killing of mountain lions.

And Letters to the Editor in the Arizona Daily Star newspaper have been downright vituperative. “The whole project is a mess and Game and Fish is at fault,” wrote one. Penned another: “The reintroduction is akin to a home invasion.” Noted one writer, “It’s like putting out a bowl of food for your dog and then shooting him when he eats it. When can somebody stop the madness?”

Brian Dolan, past president of the Arizona Desert Big Horn Sheep Society, has been involved in the project from the get-go and knew from the beginning that nothing in this effort would run smoothly.

“If it was easy, it would have been done long before,” he said. “Although we’ve had some losses, probably more than what anyone expected this early on, we’re not at a point of tossing in the towel.”

If anything, forward is the intended direction for the mission.

“It’s a fluid situation with adjustments as needed,” said Joe Sacco, the regional lead for the Game & Fish effort. “We don’t have a line in the sand or a quit date. This is early on in the translocation effort which can take years to become successful.”

The plan is for three targeted releases of about 30 animals each to establish a self-sustaining population of 110 bighorn that can co-exist with resident predators without administrative intervention.

The first release came last fall with sheep from Yuma. Another round-up is planned from another successfully-relocated sheep herd in the Apache Lake area this November.

“We couldn’t take from that source population if a sustainable population didn’t exist as a result of our previous efforts,” Region V spokesman Mark Hart said.

Here’s the history behind the hubbub: Desert bighorn, ranging in number from 100-250, once inhabited the mountain range until they winked out in the early 1990s with no apparent smoking gun deemed responsible.

“The decline was not caused by any single factor, but a number of issues including urban encroachment, disease, and natural predation,” according to the Sky Island Alliance group.

Each year the Game & Fish Department puts together a brain trust to compile a list of places that might benefit from translocations, perhaps populations that are struggling or to fill unoccupied historical habitat. It was the latter reason that prompted regional game specialists to attempt rebuilding a herd where the species previously had failed to make it, a planned 3-5 year project with a $600,000 pricetag.

Helicopters with net guns prowled the Yuma, Ariz., area (home to more than 400 bighorn) last November, capturing six rams, two dozen ewes, and a lamb, and loading them in a transport truck headed for their new home, mountain terrain ideally suited for natural climbers. Rolling hills rise to rock benches, deep canyons, and vertical cliffs with peak elevations ranging from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The area goes from cacti down low to oak trees up high with lots of water sources and forage options.

Although they arrived alive, they quickly began a die-off … one from the stress of its capture, and to-date, 16 more at the claws and jaws of hungry mountain lions who licked their chops at the sheep’s unanticipated re-emergence.

“We anticipated a certain amount of lion predation,” says department Big Game Supervisor Brian Wakeling, echoing what regional G&F supervisor Raul Vega had previously told to the Arizona Daily Star. “Any time we undertake a wildlife translocation, mortalities are to be expected. Our intent is to minimize mortalities by all available means.”

The means of minimization came in the form of departmentally-contracted hunters who killed three lions directly tracked to sheep kills.

“There are many approaches far more Draconian than eradicating specific killer lions. I think this response is a measured one,” Wakeling said. “Our plan is to capture another 30 sheep in Yuma this fall and relocate them in November as a second transplant with a third transfer in 2015, based on an annual review and a full evaluation. Although the program could be ended early, I’d be reluctant to shut it down now that we’ve started -- at least until we’ve done the second release.

“My sense is that this was probably not the perfect time for this project, although I’m not sure a perfect time would ever develop. We recognize the social and biological challenges, but thought it prudent to make the attempt. It is my hope that we will ultimately be successful in again having sheep on this mountain.”

Research conducted in six western states in the last half of the 20th century showed that out of 100 translocations, 41 percent were successful.

“The department has a proven success rate in previous transplants requiring lion removal as a short-term management strategy until sheep become acclimated to new surroundings,” former G&F Southern Arizona Regional Director Gerry Perry said.

AZGFD Director Larry Voyles said, “If this effort is successful, it will mark the sixth mountain range in which the department has re-established a naturally reproducing population of sheep living in contact with mountain lions. Arizona’s wildlife belongs to all and the repatriation process is difficult and messy, but bighorn sheep and mountain lions can ultimately coexist in a naturally functioning ecosystem as they have done for centuries.”

“There’s no poker playing here; this is a well-thought-out process,” said Wakeling, to which Jim Paxon, Information Director for AZGFD adds: “Conservation is never fast -- nor easy.”

“It’s too early to call this a success because we haven’t yet gotten to a place for a fair evaluation,” Sacco said. “But each time a new lamb shows up (there have been four newborns to date), that’s a success story.

Translocations are a well-used tool with a lot of science behind the process. There will always be setbacks, but I’m optimistic going forward and my optimism isn’t just blind, it’s built on science and history.”

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