Eight of the 31 bighorn sheep transplanted to the Catalina Mountains in November are now dead — slashing the size of the group by more than 25 percent in just over two months.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department finally confirmed the sixth, seventh and eighth bighorn deaths in a news release on Friday, more than two weeks after one of the sheep died and more than a week after the other two deaths.
Agency officials have declined to provide promptly updated information on the sheep reintroduction, choosing instead to issue news releases only every two weeks. The previous news release on Jan. 10 confirmed five deaths and the deaths of two mountain lions that were killed by the agency for preying on sheep.
The three mortalities confirmed Friday were adult ewes found on Jan. 8, 11 and 15, the news release said. It said investigators determined that the bighorns were killed by mountain lions, but that the “offending” lions were not located.
Most of the sheep released were fitted with GPS tracking collars.
The eight dead bighorns consisted of six adult ewes, a yearling ewe and an adult ram. All the ewes were killed by mountain lions, investigators found. The ram apparently was a victim of capture myopathy, a buildup of lactic acid in muscle tissue during the capture or release process that can lead to heart failure, the news release said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Forest Service officials released an updated map of a designated bighorn sheep management area, where restrictions are in place.
Dogs are prohibited at all times in the area, and traveling more than 400 feet off designated trails is prohibited during the bighorn lambing season from Jan. 1 through April 30.
Also prohibited are day-use groups of more than 15 people and overnight groups of more than six people, year round.
The bighorn sheep reintroduction, which is aimed at rebuilding a herd in the Catalinas that died out in the 1990s, has drawn strong criticism from many members of the public. Some say it’s a bad idea to reintroduce bighorns where the species previously failed to thrive. Others decry the killing of mountain lions for doing what predators naturally do — in this case, preying on bighorns.
“As the toll from this cruel experiment mounts, the (citizens’) advisory committee (working with the Game and Fish Department) needs to act,” said Dwight Metzger, a member of a group called Friends of Wild Animals. “There should be no more lions killed, and certainly no more bighorns relocated in the Catalinas.”
Supporters of the project — including members of the advisory committee and Tucson sportsman Larry Audsley — say it’s a worthy plan and that people should withhold judgment until it has a chance to succeed.