Bighorn sheep could once more roam the Catalina Mountains - possibly as soon as this fall.
Preliminary plans call for "bringing sheep from Southwestern Arizona and putting them into the Catalinas," where the last remnants of a native bighorn herd died out about a decade ago, said Jim Heffelfinger, regional game specialist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The hope this time is that changes to the landscape brought on by wildfires and more genetically diverse herds could help with their long-term survival.
Heffelfinger said plans, which are still under discussion with advisory groups, call for relocating about 30 desert bighorns into the range in November. Additional sheep would be brought here in subsequent years.
"The goal is three releases of 30 sheep each," Heffelfinger said, noting the relocations would occur as animals become available from several healthy herds in Southwestern Arizona and possibly Central Arizona. "It's exciting. We all want to see desert bighorn sheep back in the Catalinas."
Joe Sacco, wildlife manager with the Game and Fish Department, said officials are "extremely optimistic" about bringing bighorns back to the Catalinas. But he emphasized that the plans as outlined "are not a foregone conclusion."
A RANGE OF REACTIONS
Representatives of environmental groups, hikers and others expressed excitement - but also concerns - about bringing back the bighorns.
"It's a really exciting opportunity to have bighorn sheep in the Catalinas again," said Carolyn Campbell, executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.
"But we have concerns about it being successful," Campbell said. "When putting animals into an area, you want to make sure you don't have the same problems that extirpated them in the first place."
Jillian Robinson, an author and avid hiker who often treks the Catalinas, said her immediate reaction to news of a possible return of bighorns was almost dreamily positive.
"It was captivation by the romantic notion of having bighorns up there," Robinson said in an email. "The mystique of their presence. The whisper of possibility of encounter in this idyllic setting."
On reflection, Robinson said, her enthusiasm was tempered.
"Then the practical kicked in," she said. "Is this the best habitat for the bighorns' well-being, or is another mountain range better? We've had drought. Why is this a good habitat for them now?"
Robinson posed another question: "Will this mean more rules and regulations? As bighorns are elusive, few will ever see them. Are new restrictions worth the trade-off?"
REBUILDING A HERD
Heffelfinger acknowledged that re-establishing a herd in a range where the species previously failed to survive poses some challenges.
Some factors that might have led to the die-off of the herd - which once numbered more than 100 bighorns on Pusch Ridge at the western end of the Catalinas - remain the same.
Those factors include:
• Extensive urbanization around the base of the ridge and elsewhere in the range.
• Heavy use of the area by hikers - especially hikers with dogs - who disturb sheep and possibly hinder reproduction.
Other factors have changed in ways that could benefit survival.
One key change, Heffelfinger said, is that wildfires in recent years have removed many dense growths of brush. The brush reduced visibility and made bighorns vulnerable to predators.
"We have looked at the habitat from Redington Pass (near the eastern end of the Catalinas) all the way to Pusch Ridge," he said. "The fires really cleaned out a lot of the brush.
"So we think we have a lot more habitat available to the sheep than when they died out. We have cause for optimism that this could really work. It wouldn't be just throwing some more sheep in there and seeing what happens."
Another factor that could favor bighorn survival would be the genetic diversity provided by relocating sheep from more than one herd.
"We could take a few sheep from different populations," Heffelfinger said.
That would reduce the likelihood of inbreeding, which could have had a negative effect on the former Pusch Ridge herd during its decline in the 1980s and '90s.
Wildlife officials say no firm decisions have been made on possible release sites for bighorns in the Catalinas, but they're considering several.
One would be Pusch Ridge. Even though that's where the native herd finally died out, the craggy terrain suits bighorns, and changes in vegetation there could now help with survival.
Another site under consideration, Heffelfinger said, is "the back of Sabino Canyon. Past the end of the tram route, way in the back - all those cliffs you see back there" could be suitable habitat.
Other sites in the range also might be considered for releases, Heffelfinger said.
On StarNet: The Critters of Southern Arizona database at azstarnet.com/critters can help you identify that visitor in your backyard.
Some facts about desert bighorn sheep:
• Adult males, rams, can weigh up to 225 pounds. Adult females, ewes, can weigh up to 140 pounds.
• A typical life span for bighorns is 10 to 12 years, but some can live 17 years or longer.
• Ewe horns are usually 10 to 13 inches long. Ram horns can measure 30 to 40 inches along the outside curl.
• Bighorns are diurnal animals, meaning they're active during the day.
• Animals that prey on bighorn sheep include mountain lions, golden eagles, bobcats and coyotes.
Source: Arizona Game and Fish Department
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at email@example.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz