Bighorn sheep — reintroduced to the Catalina Mountains in recent years — have reached a stable population and are often spotted and photographed by hikers in Catalina Mountain canyons north of Tucson.
“Bighorn sheep have become a watchable wildlife opportunity in the Santa Catalinas,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Of course, you need keen eyesight or good optics, and a little bit of luck, to see them. But that’s true for all wildlife watching.”
A reintroduction effort began in 2013 to rebuild a bighorn herd that disappeared from the Catalinas in the 1990s.
A total of 110 sheep were brought to the range from thriving herds elsewhere in the state, with releases in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, Hart said. Some animals have been lost to predation by mountain lions and other causes, but the herd has been bolstered by births of lambs over the years.
The population is now estimated at 66 animals based on an aerial survey earlier this month, Hart said.
Sightings have been reported in Pontatoc, Pima and Finger Rock canyons as well as other sites in the Catalinas.
Tucsonan Rick Williams has spotted bighorns several times in Pontatoc Canyon and photographed them.
“Sometimes you notice something moving, but they appear very small in the distance,” Williams said.
He described a recent Pontatoc Canyon sighting in September.
“I was sitting in the shade under a rock, taking a rest,” Williams said.
“I heard some brush moving and spotted them.
“I looked across the canyon and saw six sheep,” he said.
“There was a nice ram and five ewes bedded down 75 to 100 yards across and below me.
“You get a little adrenalin rush. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t seen me.”
Williams said he watched the animals for about 90 minutes “as they napped, browsed, climbed around and napped some more. They finally got up and moved all the way up to the top of the ridge between Pontatoc and the next canyon over.”
He photographed the sheep using a zoom lens with an extender to bring them into close focus.
Hart said watching bighorns from a distance offers an exciting wildlife experience, but he emphasized one caution.
“Hikers need to observe the trail restriction against taking dogs into the Bighorn Sheep Management Area” of the Catalinas, he said.
“Although large and charismatic, bighorns are a bit high-strung and sense dogs as predators. We want to minimize disturbances in their habitat.”