Fifteen bighorn lambs have been observed this season in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson — raising hopes that efforts to rebuild a bighorn sheep herd in the range could eventually be successful.

“We remain cautiously optimistic,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “It’s wonderful news that we have that many lambs observed. But nobody’s popping champagne corks yet.”

Hart said 40 adult bighorns are known to be alive in the Catalinas. They include animals surviving from a group brought to the range in 2013 and additional sheep released there last fall.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department, with assistance from a citizens advisory committee, is overseeing the bighorn project. It is aimed at rebuilding a herd that disappeared from the Catalinas in the 1990s by bringing in sheep from healthy herds elsewhere in the state.

LAMB SIGHTINGS

“On March 6, an Arizona Game and Fish Department research biologist confirmed the 15th lamb born this season,” says a report issued by the department. “The ewe, captured in the Plomosa Mountains (near Quartzsite) in November 2014, and her newborn lamb were observed from a long distance using optics to minimize disturbance.

“Prior to the observation of the 15th lamb, a research biologist had observed a group of sheep with four lambs,” the report says.

Hart said the selection of a November 2014 release site near the location of surviving bighorns from the 2013 release “has contributed not only to the survival of the existing sheep but birth and survival of lambs. It’s all about habitat.”

No lamb deaths have been confirmed, Hart said, but he added that “we need to be realistic.”

“Lamb survival is typically low — usually about 25 percent” over the course of a year, he said.

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ADVICE FOR HIKERS

“Don’t go off trail in the bighorn management area,” which is noted on trailhead signs in Pusch Ridge Wilderness land in the southwestern part of the Catalinas, Hart said. “It’s illegal to go more than 400 feet off trails during the lambing season that continues through the end of April.”

He advised that people observe bighorns only from a distance and refrain from approaching them.

“Never take dogs into the bighorn sheep area,” Hart said. “It’s illegal year-round.”

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@tucson.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz