Bighorns finding their footing, wildlife officials say

2014-07-18T21:30:00Z 2014-07-19T10:05:59Z Bighorns finding their footing, wildlife officials sayBy Doug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

A “consensus is emerging” in favor of a second transplant of bighorn sheep to the Catalina Mountains this fall, but no final decision has been made, state wildlife officials say.

The transplant of 31 bighorns to the range north of Tucson in November sparked controversy when 16 of the sheep died — most killed by mountain lions — in the first few months.

But now several “encouraging developments” have brought “cautious optimism” for proceeding with another transplant, said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The developments include:

  • The lack of bighorn deaths for the past four months in the Catalinas.
  • The apparent survival and good health of five lambs born since the transplant.
  • Indications that the lone surviving ram may be about to breed with ewes.

Those factors have led members of a citizens advisory committee on the bighorn project to lean toward proceeding with a second transplant, Hart said.

“A consensus is emerging among advisory committee members that we should move forward” with the project, which is aimed at rebuilding a bighorn herd that disappeared from the Catalinas in the 1990s, he said. “But we emphasize that no final decision has been made, and conditions on the ground could change.”

Hart said the department is tentatively planning for another transplant this fall “because it’s easier to plan and then stand down than to not plan and abruptly begin a translocation. Planning gives us flexibility.”

A possible source population for a transplant is a herd in the Canyon Lake area of the Tonto National Forest, Hart said.

Randy Serraglio, of the Center for Biological Diversity and a member of the advisory committee, sees positive signs favoring a transplant of more bighorns this fall.

“The way things are working on the mountain right now, it’s very encouraging and points us to continuing with the project,” Serraglio said. “It’s very encouraging to see the sheep exhibiting their normal biological behaviors and the lambs doing so well.”

LAMBS ARE THRIVING

“To date, five lambs have been observed during this season,” says a project report issued this month. “The lambs are growing quickly. In fact, one lamb observed recently is already three-quarters the size of an adult and is starting to grow horns! All lambs appear to be healthy.”

LONE RAM’S ROLE

Five adult rams and two yearling rams were brought to the Catalinas in November, and only one of the adult rams remains alive. One of the yearlings has died, but the fate of the other is unknown because it wasn’t fitted with a GPS tracking collar.

“The lone ram has ranged widely but is now in proximity to the surviving ewes, which is where we need him to be at the start of the breeding season,” Hart, of the Game and Fish Department, said.

“They usually breed from July through September,” he said. “We have not yet seen the ram mating with ewes, but he headed in the right direction at the right time. Clearly, it would be better if there were more rams up there, but that’s not the case. We have to hope that the lone ram mates with as many of the (dozen) ewes as he possibly can.”

OPPONENTS’ VIEWS

Opponents of the bighorn project, including members of the Friends of Wild Animals Group, maintain that inadequate habitat, urban encroachment around the Catalinas and heavy use of the range by people make it a poor place for a reintroduction project.

They also object to the killing of three mountain lions that preyed on bighorns.

“The odds of a sheep herd surviving long term in the Catalina Mountains are not good,” said Ricardo Small, a member of Friends of Wild Animals. “Conditions that led to the demise of the native bighorn sheep back in the 1990s are worse today, not better. The current program is a waste of bighorn sheep lives and the lives of mountain lions.”

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@tucson.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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