Mountain lions that kill bighorn sheep in the Catalina Mountains will now be tracked and killed by state-sponsored hunters only in a portion of the Catalinas rather than throughout the range, wildlife officials said Friday.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department said in its project update that it is implementing a recommendation to “collapse the previous administrative mountain lion removal (killing) boundary and refocus removal efforts to a more defined area.”
Since 31 bighorn sheep were relocated to the Catalinas north of Tucson from mountains near Yuma in November, 12 bighorns have died — most of them killed by mountain lions. Two mountain lions have been killed by the agency for preying on sheep. Pursuits of other lions have been unsuccessful.
“We’ve adapted the plan to better manage the sheep population,” which is monitored by means of GPS collars, said Mark Hart, an agency spokesman. “Most of the surviving sheep are in the (reduced) area where lions can be pursued. We’re trying to focus resources on the best habitat.
“Previously, essentially the whole Catalina range was the area where we could pursue mountain lions,” Hart said. “Now, the designated area is basically the west and south slopes — from Cañada del Oro to Bear Canyon.”
He had no immediate estimate of the acreage of the area.
Elsewhere in the reintroduction update issued Friday, officials and the project advisory committee noted that “there has been a conscious effort to try an alternative, more conservative and more targeted approach to addressing mountain lion predation. The idea is to remove only those lions that select for sheep and leave in place those that do not.”
The reason for that, the report said, “is that those lions left in the habitat would prevent the influx of new migrant lions that could prey upon sheep.”
The report said the agency and advisory committee look for ways to conduct “selective” removal of lions that prey on bighorns as much as possible.
It goes on to say, however, that an alternative is “to apply more indiscriminate methods until specific goals tied to the management are met” and that “alternative actions may become necessary in order to facilitate the re-establishment of the bighorn sheep herd in the Santa Catalina Mountains.”
Ben Pachano, a spokesman for a group called Friends of Wild Animals, said, “While it’s good to see Game and Fish limiting lion hunting in any way, the people of Tucson have made it clear that they want a complete end to the killing of mountain lions in the Catalinas.”
“It’s notable,” Pachano said, “that in the same report announcing a limitation of lion hunting, the advisory committee basically threatens to begin wide-scale killing of mountain lions if they deem it ‘necessary.’ But the entire reintroduction project is itself unnecessary.”
NEW LAMB PHOTOS
Photos released Friday by the Game and Fish Department show a bighorn lamb — one of three lambs spotted in the range since the relocation project began.
While the births are considered a positive sign, officials caution that quick population gains are unlikely because of a low survival rate for lambs.
The survival rate for bighorn lambs is 20 to 25 percent, Hart said.