Bighorn sheep at Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Courtesy of Tom Blanford

A project to rebuild a sustainable herd of bighorn sheep in the Catalina Mountains is now considered a success — and no more mountain lions will be killed for preying on bighorns, state wildlife officials said Thursday.

“The specialist that was responsible for lethally removing mountain lions” for preying on bighorns worked under a contract, said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “That contract lapsed yesterday and we are not renewing it.”

Eight lions have been killed for preying on sheep since the reintroduction effort in the Catalinas north of Tucson began in 2013. The killings have brought an outcry from many citizens who maintain that it’s wrong to kill mountain lions for doing what predators must do to survive and feed their young.

Hart said the current bighorn population is estimated at 65 animals. Plans call for bringing an additional 20 sheep to the Catalinas from the Yuma area next week to further bolster the herd, he said.

The number of animals living in the range following that translocation of bighorns from the Yuma area will amount to a sustainable population, said members of a citizens advisory committee working with Game and Fish on the bighorn reintroduction.

“The project has reached a point of equilibrium — success,” said Brian Dolan, a past president of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and a member of the advisory committee. “It’s our belief that with that additional number of animals we’re going to be able to end the active pursuit of mountain lions.

“It’s a fulfillment of a couple decades of my life.”

Mike Quigley, another committee member and the Arizona state director of the Wilderness Society, said, “The initial goal of this project was to have a viable herd of desert bighorn sheep living in the Catalinas in equilibrium with a healthy native predator population.

“From the beginning of this project, our intervention in that process was supposed to be limited and of short-term duration,” Quigley said. “I think it’s a real step forward today that we’re ending the active pursuit of mountain lions that kill bighorn sheep.”

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