Bighorn sheep and mountain lions are dying in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson as a result of a “transplant” of 31 sheep into the range last month.
“I’m confirming that there were two sheep mortalities and two mountain lions lethally removed in the Catalina Mountains this weekend,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
After a meeting Tuesday evening of an advisory committee at Game and Fish offices in Tucson, which was closed to the public and media, Hart provided more details.
He said a Game and Fish officer shot the first mountain lion Saturday afternoon after it came up 10 yards behind him and he felt threatened. A private hounds man hired by the department shot the second lion Monday morning, Hart said, adding that both incidents were handled “totally by the book.”
In each case, he said, the shooters had reason to believe the mountain lion had killed a bighorn. Later examinations of the lions’ stomachs confirmed that, Hart said.
Game officials were not surprised this happened so quickly after the sheep were released in the Catalinas. Until a viable bighorn population is established there, any mountain lion that eats a sheep will be killed, “in an attempt to re-establish the natural order of things,” Hart said.
“At some point, if a threshold is reached” where the deaths of sheep and mountain lions are deemed excessive, game officials will reassess, he said, declining to give any numbers.
Officers of the Game and Fish Department, using helicopters and net guns, captured the 31 bighorns in mountains near Yuma on Nov. 16 and 17. The animals were released into the Catalina Mountains from Catalina State Park north of Tucson on Nov. 18 — the first step in an effort to rebuild a bighorn herd that died out in the 1990s.
The first mountain lion was shot about 2 p.m. Saturday a half-mile off the Kachina Trail between Mount Lemmon and Romero Pass; the second at about 7 a.m. Monday about a mile off the Romero Canyon Trail just below the Montrose pools.
Numerous Tucson residents have contacted the Arizona Daily Star to decry the transplant plan and the killing of mountain lions for doing what predators do — preying on animals such as bighorns.
“The reintroduction is akin to a home invasion,” said Tommy Di Maggio, a Tucson outdoor recreation guide and lifelong conservationist. “Imagine if someone broke into your home and removed you and your family with nets, and told you they were taking you to a place were there weren’t enough of you.”
The loss of two bighorn sheep so soon after the reintroduction is early evidence that the reintroduction plan is “a horrible decision,” Di Maggio said.
“Mercilessly removing the bighorn sheep from their native habitat, chasing them with helicopters, shooting them with nets, hauling them into the helicopters and transporting them to a very heavy human-populated area with a large population of healthy mountain lions was crazy,” he said.
Another Tucsonan, retiree and former hunter Charles Bilbro, said the bighorns “were killed by mountain lions. What did anyone expect? Put dinner on the table and someone is going to eat, especially where your existence depends on it.
“Now the sheep are free to die off just like they did before — slowly — from the environment they are forced to live in,” Bilbro said. “Conditions that killed them before have increased and will kill them again.”