It has now been more than a month since any reintroduced desert bighorn sheep have died in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Three mountain lions have been removed as a result of the Catalina Bighorn Restoration project, and this is unfortunate, but biologists say it will not affect the overall health of the area’s lion population. And wildlife managers have spotted five lambs, all of which appear to be healthy and growing.
This is good news for bighorn and everyone rooting for their recovery in a place they called home for thousands of years before they winked out in the 1990s.
The project has been criticized, largely for the lion removals, which are necessary to give the sheep a chance to become established. However, the project’s conservative, targeted lion management plan is designed to keep those removals to a minimum, and it’s been balanced by a closure of the reintroduction area to recreational lion hunting with hounds.
Sheep mortality has been high as individuals explore new terrain and learn escape routes, and that’s regrettable, but high mortality is common with reintroductions of all sorts of wildlife, including desert bighorn. Many past bighorn reintroductions in Arizona and elsewhere around the West started slowly yet have achieved success.
Encouragingly, most of the Catalinas sheep are now congregating in prime habitat: the extremely rugged terrain of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness.
Even using the best available science, wildlife management is a delicate and difficult task. The key is to adapt management decisions to ongoing data collection and changes in conditions on the ground as projects move forward, in order to give species the best chance for recovery.
Some individuals may unavoidably be lost in the process, but the key is to increase the overall population of the species and the number of places where it can be found.
By the middle of the 20th century, bighorn sheep numbers had crashed in Arizona and all over the West, largely due to commercial harvest, disease and habitat loss. Since then they’ve made a dramatic recovery, for two main reasons.
First, states now regulate hunting of bighorn sheep in a rational, science-based fashion, greatly limiting the number of individuals taken every year so that herd populations remain stable and secure.
Second, groups that support bighorn conservation put a lot of time, effort and money into reintroduction projects like the one now underway in the Catalinas. About 70 percent of those reintroductions have been successful, and Arizona bighorn numbers have rebounded from a low in the hundreds to nearly 6,000 sheep statewide.
However, just as it’s far too soon to call the Catalinas reintroduction a failure, it’s also too soon to pop the champagne cork. Later this year the Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee will analyze all the data and experiences of the project’s first year and make a science-based decision on whether to recommend another translocation of sheep. Due to slow reproduction rates, it can take many years for a bighorn herd to become reestablished in numbers that are self-sustaining.
Challenges remain, and more sheep will be lost, but several factors point toward optimism: The Coronado National Forest and volunteers have spent hundreds of hours educating recreational users about the importance of staying on trails and not taking dogs into the bighorn reintroduction area.
The Coronado is finalizing plans to return fire to its natural role in the Catalinas through its FireScape program, which will benefit habitat for bighorn and many other species. And this summer, workers will break ground on the Oracle Road project, which includes wildlife crossings that will allow sheep to connect with other herds. Bighorn are successfully using such crossings in Northern Arizona and other places.
The stark reality of the modern world is that people affect wildlife every day. We believe that intervening to correct our mistakes, mitigate our negative influences, and give wildlife the chance to survive and recover is the right thing to do. We agree with Charles Bowden’s conclusion in a recent issue of Arizona Highways: “We can do better than we have. We can bring the bighorns back where they belong.”