When the news came out that bighorn sheep will be reintroduced to the Santa Catalinas, suspicions quickly arose: They must be doing it so hunters can kill the sheep.

Locals such as Tommy Di Maggio, who runs a pack-goat outfitting business in the Rincons and Catalinas, concluded the whole project doesn't make sense without a hunting motive.

"This is another opportunity to have a place where you can cull, harvest, bighorn sheep," said Di Maggio, who is a hunter himself, though he doesn't like the idea of moving sheep to hunt them later.

These concerns worried me, too, but it turns out the picture is more complicated than that. Hunting of older rams in this herd, if it's ever established, may become possible over the long run, but not for at least five years.

And even if it does happen, it's likely to be limited and isn't necessarily a bad thing - except to those rams that are killed.

The hunting of bighorns and their survival have been paradoxically linked in Arizona since the 1950s.

The Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee, the diverse set of interest groups who have put together the project, hasn't touched the issue of hunting of the transplanted bighorn population. This committee includes representatives of several groups who more often fight with each other than cooperate, but they've been able to agree on the plan to introduce 30 bighorn sheep per year to Pusch Ridge, starting in November and going for three years.

Hunting the bighorns "is an issue we haven't even talked about," said Jenny Neeley, a member of the committee who is the Sky Island Alliance's conservation policy director. "It isn't even on our radar."

Randy Serraglio, a committee member from the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote me an email before dropping off the grid in the Rocky Mountains last week:

"By rule, a reintroduced herd cannot be hunted for at least five years. Beyond that, there is a very careful demographic formula used to determine how many tags can be issued for a given herd without affecting the population, which is usually a very low number (e.g., only one tag issued for the entire Silverbell herd last year). So, the Catalinas herd will not be hunted any time soon, if ever, therefore a non-issue at this point."

In the state, 107 tags are available for bighorn sheep this year, meaning up to that number of mature rams may be killed by hunters, Arizona Game and Fish field supervisor Joe Sacco told me. That compares with 42,280 deer tags.

While bighorn sheep are not an endangered species, they are more sensitive to human activity and other pressures than some other large mammals are. One reason is that the ewes only give birth to one lamb at a time, meaning the survival of each year's young is key for the population to take hold.

Members of the committee think the improvement in sheep habitat produced by wildfires in the Catalinas over the last 10 years, along with planned burnings, will help allow the newly introduced animals to do better than the old Pusch Ridge herd did as their numbers declined in the 1980s and 1990s. Predators such as mountain lions can hide in the brush that survives in the absence of fires, and food plants also can flourish after fires.

If a Catalina herd becomes established, hunters will be interested in them, longtime Tucson sportsman Larry Audsley told me. But removing older rams - those permitted to be killed by hunting regulations - can leave the population largely unaffected.

"It's not a bad thing at all to remove a dominant ram and let other, younger rams, with different DNA, keep the gene pool diverse," Audsley said.

Even if you write off that explanation as mere justification by hunters, there are a couple of other factors that suggest hunting would not be a bad thing if it ever comes to that.

Audsley and Vail-based hunting guide Pat Feldt surprised me by explaining that people actually eat bighorn meat. I suspected that they were strictly a trophy-hunting target, which would bother me. Feldt called it "one of the finer meats in Arizona."

"Everybody's main goal is to kill a nice big trophy ram. You take the meat out with you, and you eat the meat," Feldt said. "It's not like eating domesticated lamb. Lamb has a strong musky flavor. It's a milder flavor."

Audsley said he ranks bighorn sheep meat as worse than elk but better than deer.

Hunting of sheep has also helped their recovery in Arizona. The tags cost $280 each for residents, or almost $1,500 each for non-residents, and there are occasional raffles of opportunities to hunt anywhere in the state that bring in more than $100,000. Hunters are allowed to take just one ram in their lives.

Between 1984 and 2011, the tags and raffles have raised $6.8 million that goes back into helping bighorn sheep populations.

"It's unquestionable that it's been a benefit," said Brian Dolan, an Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society member who is on the Catalina project committee.

Game and Fish funnels the money to organizations like the society, who carry out projects like building water catchments in bighorn territory.

For some people that may be a distasteful compromise - letting animals be killed in the hope that it helps the same species thrive. But I'm pragmatic - and a fisherman who made peace with this sort of compromise and fiddling with nature a long time ago.

As always, Game and Fish's decisions require monitoring. But in the long run, we can count ourselves lucky if hunting in this new bighorn population becomes possible.

"Everybody's main goal is to kill a nice big trophy ram. You take the meat out with you, and you eat the meat."

Pat Feldt

Vail-based hunting guide

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter.