The reintroduction of bighorn sheep to the Catalina Mountains has gotten off to a deadly and controversial start — with two bighorns killed by mountain lions, two predatory lions killed by state-sponsored hunters and many citizens voicing scathing criticisms of the project.
Thirty-one sheep, captured in mountains near Yuma last month by officers of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, were released in the Catalinas north of Tucson on Nov. 18.
It was the first step in a plan by wildlife officials and members of a citizens advisory group to rebuild a bighorn herd that died out in the range in the 1990s.
Even before the sheep were released, numerous people decried the project as an ill-conceived effort to micromanage nature — and some predicted that the bighorns were doomed to death in a place where the previous herd met its end.
Last week, with reports that bighorns and mountain lions were dying so soon after the reintroduction, many Tucsonans expressed outrage.
Some lashed out at the Game and Fish Department for “absolutely appalling behavior” and for causing “cruel and unusual suffering” for the sheep and lions. Others called for an immediate end to the project and an investigation into the department’s actions. One Tucsonan posted a petition at www.change.org calling on citizens to urge the department to stop killing mountain lions.
But others have expressed support for the reintroduction and want to see it go forward. One Tucson sportsman and conservationist said loud opposition to the project reflects the “inflamed emotions of a misguided and under-informed public.”
The Star posed questions about the reintroduction and resulting controversy to Game and Fish officials. Here are the agency’s answers, which were formulated by a group of officials and advisory group members and submitted in writing:
Q: At least two bighorn sheep have been killed, and two mountain lions have been killed by marksmen representing the department, since the Nov. 18 bighorn release. Did wildlife officials expect the killing to begin so soon?
A: We expected that lions would prey on sheep. Exactly how soon that would happen could not be predicted. However, predation commonly occurs soon following release because during the early weeks and months, translocated bighorn sheep remain unfamiliar with their new surroundings and are exploring their new home. It takes a little while to learn where the best habitat is located.
Q: Will every lion that kills a bighorn be tracked down and killed?
A: That is unlikely. Not all mountain lions that prey on bighorn sheep are likely to be found. If a female with young kittens is the predator that takes a bighorn sheep, we will not take that animal.
Q: What is the method of operation? How do wildlife officers or contract hunters get to the kill site? Are helicopters, horses or off-highway vehicles involved, or is the approach on foot?
A: They hike in by foot.
Q: How can wildlife officers know for certain that a particular lion has killed a sheep before they kill the lion and examine the contents of its stomach and other evidence?
A: If the inspection of the dead bighorn sheep occurs soon after the death, there is a very high probability that if a mountain lion killed the bighorn sheep, it will remain in the vicinity of the kill and carcass. Both of the mountain lions recently removed had been feeding on the bighorn sheep and were at or near the sheep kill site. Tracking is done by wildlife management professionals and/or an experienced houndsman. Finally, forensic samples of the bighorn sheep and the mountain lion are collected and analyzed in the process by which we confirm predation as the cause of death.
Q: Numerous members of the public say they are “outraged” that a state agency is killing members of one species to protect another. What’s the best brief explanation of this policy?
A: Removing mountain lions that kill bighorn sheep is a short-term management strategy to allow for the bighorn sheep population to grow and become self-sustaining. Research shows that Tucsonans support having bighorn sheep in the Catalinas. Only mountain lions that prey on sheep will be removed. While certain individual mountain lions are removed, the overall population of mountain lions will not be substantially affected. The mountain lion population in the Catalinas is among the most abundant in Arizona.
Q: It was stated after a meeting Tuesday that wildlife officials will reassess the situation if “at some point a threshold is reached” where the deaths of sheep and mountain lions are deemed excessive. What is that threshold?
A: We are following an adaptive management strategy which means that we continually reassess based on incoming data which is assessed in conjunction with the Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee. We are committed to working with and through our community partners in this adaptive decision-making process.
The plan includes a subsequent translocation of more bighorn sheep from another population next year. Those bighorn sheep will benefit from the herd knowledge gained by bighorn sheep from the release this year. At this point, we do not anticipate abandoning this effort in the short term, but our plans will continue to be shared with the public as they develop.
Q: If such a threshold is reached, what would happen? Would the department stop killing mountain lions? Would it cancel plans for transplanting more sheep to the Catalinas?
A: This is a five-year project with two more sheep transplants planned. Modification of the program is certainly a possibility, but again, we will work with our community partners in the adaptive decision-making process.
Q: Are the sheep showing signs of forming a cohesive herd or are they quite scattered? Would forming a cohesive herd help protect the bighorns from predation by mountain lions?
A: At present, the bighorn sheep continue to explore their new habitat and have not yet formed herd units. Individual bighorn sheep in a group tend to be less vigilant, but larger groups of bighorn sheep may offer more protection, as more individuals are watching for predators from more directions.
Q: Is the previously reported cost of the entire three-year project still estimated at $600,000 or has the projected cost changed? What is an approximate cost to taxpayers of pursuing and killing a mountain lion that has killed a bighorn?
A: No taxpayer dollars are being used for this project and the department does not receive any general fund appropriations. This effort is funded entirely with fees paid for hunting licenses and permits, as well as excise taxes on hunting equipment and private donations. Anyone who has not purchased hunting or fishing licenses, purchased firearms or ammunition, or provided a donation to this project has not contributed anything toward this conservation effort. We encourage people to donate to the restoration project.
Q: Could the Game and Fish Department and the advisory group have been wrong about the viability of reintroducing bighorn sheep to the Catalina Mountains?
A: This is a management experiment. Bighorn sheep were extirpated from the Catalinas during the early 1990s, yet the specific reason for the extirpation remains speculative. Yet, many possible factors influencing that extirpation have been addressed, including habitat improvements and recreational disturbance. Many years of study, planning and community coordination paved the way to the recent release in the Catalinas. Yet this remains a long-term project. Statewide, the department has relocated over 2,000 bighorn sheep since 1957. Translocations have been the primary tool that brought bighorn sheep from the estimated 1,500 animals in 1957 to the more than 5,500 we have in the state today.
This is the first effort to restore the population in the Catalina Mountains. The difficulty in restoring a population after it has been extirpated underscores the importance of maintaining those populations that are in place. Our objective is to establish a self-sustaining population, and we are doing everything we can to work toward this. This is a wildlife experiment that can inform bighorn sheep management statewide.
Q: Might the project be canceled if sheep and lions continue to die? And if it were canceled, would the department consider recapturing the sheep and returning them to their home ranges?
A: This is a five-year program, and we are in this for the long haul. We are committed to working with and through our community partners to achieve the best possible outcomes.
The department is not planning to recapture any remaining bighorn sheep if the effort is discontinued. These bighorn sheep may find others in other nearby habitats, or simply join other pioneers that may explore into the Catalinas from those nearby habitats. Any recapture effort in this habitat would be risky for both biologists and bighorn sheep.
Q: Is there other information you would like to share?
A: We are using the latest science to work toward success of this project. That includes understanding the life histories of bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
Mountain lions and bighorn sheep differ in their longevity and reproductive capabilities. Mountain lions can live up to 13 years in the wild, although most are substantially younger. Female mountain lions typically breed for their first time between a year and half and 3 years of age. Females typically have twins, and give birth about once every year and a half. Survival to adult is variable, but ranges from 20 to 50 percent.
Bighorn sheep may live up to 12 years in the wild as well, although attaining this age is equally unlikely for bighorn sheep as it is for mountain lions. First breeding for females typically occurs during her second year. Ewes will typically have a single lamb annually, and lamb survival to adulthood is typically around 25 percent.
These natural history parameters give mountain lions the reproductive advantage over bighorn sheep. Within the Catalinas, this demographic advantage also extends to the potential for immigration of mountain lions from contiguous habitat, from which other mountain lions may move into any vacant habitat. Suitable bighorn sheep habitat is most often isolated to steeper ground with cliffs and peaks. Bighorn sheep have to cross substantial barriers, including highways and unsuitable habitat, to gain access to the Catalinas. That is why sheep had to be reintroduced, after having died out in the 1990s. Clearly, there is no danger of decimating mountain lion numbers.
And although the numbers themselves may favor mountain lions, the Catalinas are home to a robust deer and javelina population that mountain lions can also use for food.
Conservation of wildlife is a long-term and often a difficult pursuit, based on scientific research, observation and monitoring and experience, planning and coordination with land management agencies, local governments, organizations and citizens.
Conservation requires “boots on the ground” in all kinds of conditions and circumstances. The public’s passion for wildlife is of utmost importance. We seek to inform the public as to all aspects of the department’s management of wildlife.