An Arizona chapter of the influential Sierra Club — founded in 1892 by legendary conservationist John Muir and now the nation’s largest environmental group — has come out in opposition to a controversial bighorn sheep reintroduction near Tucson.
The club’s Grand Canyon Chapter sent a letter to the Arizona Game and Fish Department and Commission saying it “opposes further releases of bighorn sheep into the Santa Catalina Mountains until the Forest Service and Game and Fish have addressed the habitat issues.”
Game and Fish spokesman Jim Paxon said the agency is “preparing a response by subject matter experts with review by legal counsel to the April 12 letter from the Sierra Club.”
The Sierra Club letter, signed by chapter director Sandy Bahr, says habitat conditions were rated poor to fair in much of the area where 31 bighorns were released in November.
Low ratings for habitat conditions stem from factors such as encroaching development and the lack of fires, which benefit sheep by removing vegetation that serves as cover for predatory mountain lions.
The poor to fair conditions likely were a factor in the deaths of many of the 16 sheep that have died since the release, the Sierra Club maintains.
“While we support restoration of native species to their natural habitat, we do question the efficacy of introducing animals to an area where they disappeared, where it is unclear why the population died out, and where a majority of the habitat is poor to fair,” the letter says. “Encroaching development has impacted the lower elevation pastures where sheep historically grazed, while fire exclusion and climate change have rendered the Pusch Ridge habitat as poor to fair.”
The letter adds, “Considering that many of the sheep that have been killed have been in the poor habitat areas, it is not a stretch to think that habitat issues are a major factor in their demise. Rather than continuing to release sheep into habitat that is considered poor, something that is a detriment to the sheep and ultimately the mountain lions, we ask that you seek to improve the habitat conditions before proceeding further with this project.”
The Sierra Club also called on the Game and Fish Department to provide information on the impact of the reintroduction program on “source populations of sheep” — herds in the Yuma area where the 31 bighorns were captured in November.
Bahr, in an interview, said it appears that questionable habitat conditions took a back seat to what she sees as the Game and Fish Department’s desire to use wildlife as a source of revenue.
“The big problem is that they tend to treat some of the species like they are a cash crop,” Bahr said. “Let’s grow more bighorn sheep. Let’s grow more deer. Let’s grow more pronghorns so we can sell more hunting tags.”
She said wildlife officials are excessively focused on killing predators to facilitate reintroductions — including the killing of three mountain lions for preying on reintroduced bighorns in the Catalinas.
“Game and Fish is not a trade association” for hunting interests, Bahr said. “It’s a public agency. Game and Fish has a public trust responsibility to everyone — not just to the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society,” which is one of the groups providing funding for the reintroduction.
“We need to live better with wildlife,” she said. “Game and Fish ought to be leading the way on this, not promoting extermination of predators.”
GAME AND FISH VIEW
Paxon, of the Game and Fish Department, acknowledged that significant portions of the habitat where sheep were released in the Catalinas were rated poor to fair.
But he maintained that some of the habitat is likely better than the ratings indicate.
“We use a scientific method called the Cunningham/Hansen Habitat Evaluation,” Paxon said. “There are many factors that go into the grading of the habitat. There may be really good habitat, but with encroachment or development close by, or trails with heavy use by hikers. They may degrade that habitat, but it’s still good habitat.”
Paxon said a decision has not been made yet on whether to proceed with plans to release another 30 bighorn sheep in the Catalinas this fall as part of a long-term effort to rebuild a herd that disappeared from the range in the 1990s.
A citizens advisory committee working with wildlife officials will have a voice in the decision.
“The committee is discussing the matter actively,” Paxon said. “It’s composed of members of environmental groups, sportsmen and stakeholders. It’s good citizen involvement in wildlife management. The Sierra Club was invited to participate and chose not to.”
With no confirmed bighorn deaths in the Catalinas since mid-March, it appears that the surviving sheep “have found appropriate habitat and are utilizing it,” Paxon said. “If more sheep are put in there this fall, it’s hoped that those sheep would find the adapted sheep and join them.”
COMMITTEE MEMBER’S VIEW
Brian Dolan, an advisory committee member representing the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, said he feels “general disappointment that the Sierra Club has to weigh in at this time.”
“We are finally now showing signs of limited success,” Dolan said. “But in my opinion, the Sierra Club is not in the business of supporting wildlife restoration projects. You can always count on the Sierra Club to throw a bucket of cold water on it.”