Tim Steller: More questions on reintroducing bighorns

2013-06-16T00:00:00Z Tim Steller: More questions on reintroducing bighornsTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

You could imagine the eye rolls around Tucson when it emerged June 7 that Arizona Game and Fish may end up killing some mountain lions in order to repopulate the Catalinas with bighorn sheep.

This is, after all, the agency derisively known as Arizona Maim and Squish, due to its reputation for being quick to kill problematic animals, especially predators.

But we shouldn't naively accuse the department of interfering with nature by considering killing lions to preserve sheep. That is, essentially, what we ask them to do - they disturb, dig into and re-form the wild in ways the people of Arizona, or at least interest groups, desire.

I think of that every time I catch a non-native rainbow trout or bluegill in the unnatural but beautiful Parker Canyon Lake.

In this case, the goal is a return of a species, bighorn sheep, that for centuries or more roamed the Santa Catalina Mountains, especially the southwestern sections of the range around Pusch Ridge. While this may seem a "natural" goal, backed by ecological science, it is also a simple reflection of our priorities.

These days, people want our wild places to be the way they were in some more natural past. In this case, that past isn't even far-gone - the bighorn sheep disappeared in the 1990s.

The catch, which my colleague Doug Kreutz revealed, is that in order to ensure the sheep's survival, Game and Fish has established a plan for removing or killing mountain lions that kill re-introduced bighorns.

I sat down Friday morning with three Game and Fish wildlife managers and a public-information officer to discuss the project. Their enthusiasm was hard to contain. They explained how the idea of putting bighorn sheep back on Pusch Ridge has been studied for about three years, but the project accelerated in the last six months with the work of an advisory committee that includes representatives from several environmental groups.

Crucially, one of those representatives is Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has fought with Game and Fish often over wildlife issues.

The idea is to capture 30 bighorn sheep from healthy herds in Yuma County and the Superstition Mountains in November, then add more animals over the next two years. Eventually, the idea is, there will be a self-sustaining population of 100 or more sheep.

The project's up-to $700,000 cost is covered, not by state general-fund revenue, but by license sales, grants and other sources.

I asked the Game and Fish guys if reintroducing the sheep is in some way necessary. Wildlife manager Ben Brochu, perhaps the most enthusiastic of the bunch, answered this way:

"Historically they were there. If you're going to get a diverse, functioning ecosystem that's higher quality, that's the way it should be."

Supervisor Joe Sacco pointed to ecological and other values of the reintroduction, including the ability to spot the sheep and even just the knowledge people have that bighorns are up there.

But the answer to my question is no - the sheep are only necessary in a theoretical way. Mostly they're just something people want, a local icon that we feel belongs up there.

That's what makes it hard to swallow the possible killings of mountain lions, who are naturally tempted by the arrival of a bunch of tasty sheep to augment their deer-heavy diet.

But the plan for dealing with mountain lions is quite specific. Only mountain lions found to be killing bighorn sheep would be targeted. All the relocated sheep will be fitted with GPS collars, which can be set to alert Game and Fish when a sheep has apparently died. This will allow wildlife officials to find the dead sheep quickly, see if it was killed by a mountain lion and start to track the lion, which tend to hang around their kills for days.

Also, it's not a foregone conclusion that lions in the area will gorge on the fresh meat after it arrives.

"Not all mountain lions are going to kill bighorn sheep," wildlife manager Martin Guereña said. "Some are going to specialize in white-tailed deer. Some may specialize in skunks."

Studies bear this out, but they also show that lions that kill sheep keep at it. That's why removing the guilty individuals could work, at least long enough to get a herd re-established up on Pusch Ridge.

Here, I think, is where Game and Fish may need some guidelines - and it's a good thing environmentalists like Serraglio are in on the project. How many killings of mountain lions are too many, forcing a reconsideration of bighorn-relocation project? Five? Ten? And how long will it be until the bighorn-sheep population is considered re-established, meaning mountain lions are allowed to kill sheep the way they did in that more natural time we're trying to emulate?

Game and Fish, along with the advisory committee, ought to answer questions like these.

That way, we can be sure the bighorn reintroduction doesn't morph into mountain-lion slaughter, and the agency doesn't slide into acting like Maim and Squish.

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

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