Three organizations supported primarily by hunters are the main private financial backers of a controversial state project to reintroduce bighorn sheep to the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, records show.
The connection between hunting groups and the bighorn project is also evident in some of the key wildlife officials and advisory panel members who are playing central roles in the effort to restore a bighorn sheep herd in the Catalinas. For example:
- John W. Harris
- , vice-chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, which oversees the project, is a member of all three of the organizations: the Wild Sheep Foundation, the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and the Arizona Chapter of Safari Club International.
- An eight-member citizens advisory committee for the project includes two members of the Bighorn Sheep Society as well as representatives of prominent environmental groups. The committee has played a key role in planning the bighorn project with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and continues to advise the agency.
The dominant role of hunting-related interests in planning and financing the November bighorn reintroduction — in which 16 of the 31 sheep have since died — was revealed in reports and records obtained by the Star and confirmed in interviews with officials.
Arizona Game and Fish Department records show that a total of $185,000 of the estimated $235,650 first-year costs of the reintroduction came from hunting-related sources. (See graphic) They are:
- $140,000 from big-game hunting license tag funds.
- $30,000 from the Wild Sheep Foundation.
- $10,000 from the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.
- $5,000 from the Arizona Chapter of Safari Club International.
Many opponents of the reintroduction maintain that the project’s leadership and funding strongly suggest the primary goal is to establish a viable bighorn herd for eventual hunting in the Catalinas — and some are calling for increased oversight.
Alan Rosenfeld, a retired physician and outdoors enthusiast, said he thinks there should be an independent review of the project “because there is at least an appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of the Game and Fish Commission and some members of the advisory committee.
“That’s because of their ties to the several hunting-advocacy groups that have provided a large part of the funding for the project — a project that has bighorn sheep mortality that I interpret as excessive,” he said.
Harris, the Game and Fish commissioner, said he is a member of the groups because of the role they play in wildlife conservation efforts.
“Management of all wildlife is based on science. I am a member of numerous conservation groups because they have always provided serious funding and manpower to many conservation efforts. They give back to the resource.”
Spokesmen for the funding groups say opponents distort the groups’ role by overemphasizing the hunting angle.
Tod Molesworth, president of the Arizona Chapter of Safari Club International, said the group supports the wildlife agency’s bighorn plan for the Catalinas. “Not for hunting, as the very small minority suggest, but because they belong there for everybody to enjoy,” he said.
Joe Sheehey, a spokesman for the Bighorn Sheep Society, said at the time of the November release of bighorns that hunting of the herd could be in the future.
But, he emphasized, that it would be at least 10 years from now and would happen only if a sustainable herd were established.
Two members of the Bighorn Sheep Society — Sheehey and Brian Dolan — serve on the citizens advisory committee and have had a direct say in how the project was planned and implemented. (See list of committee members)
Committee members attend regular meetings with wildlife officials and help decide on such matters as whether mountain lions should be killed for preying on bighorn sheep.
Game and Fish Department spokesmen have said they’re grateful to the three funding groups, which they call “wildlife conservation organizations” and see no problem in accepting contributions from them.
SHEEP, LION DEATHS
The Arizona Game and Fish Department and the citizens advisory committee said the goal of the project was “to establish a self-sustaining population of bighorn sheep in the Catalina Mountains that coexists with resident predators without administrative intervention.”
The plan was to reintroduce sheep to an area north of Tucson where bighorns died out in the 1990s.
After extensive planning, wildlife officers captured 31 bighorns from healthy herds near Yuma in November and released them into the Catalinas. By March, however, half the released bighorns were dead, most the victims of mountain lions.
And it’s the agency’s decision to kill mountain lions — at least three so far — that prey on the sheep that has drawn the most criticism from the public.
Project policies call for hunting down and killing a mountain lion only after the proximity of a lion and its behavior make it clear that it preyed on a sheep, said Joe Sacco, wildlife manager supervisor for Game and Fish.
The hope is that by selectively removing the predatory lions, the bighorns will have a chance to survive.
At a meeting in January, advisory committee member Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “I’m a cat person (noting that he owns a domestic cat). It definitely pains me to think about mountain lions being killed. ... But it’s a necessary and distasteful” policy in establishing the bighorn herd.
However, many other citizens, including individuals and members of groups such as the Friends of Wild Animals, oppose the reintroduction of bighorns and killing of mountain lions — and some are calling for an end to the project.
“The substantial personal and financial involvement of trophy hunting groups calls into question Game and Fish’s assertion that the best, objective science went into planning this program,” said Ben Pachano, spokesman for Friends of Wild Animals. “The environmentalists on the advisory committee need to ask themselves why they’re supporting a project backed by notorious anti-conservation groups like Safari Club International.”
Wildlife officials, members of the advisory committee and numerous hunters and wildlife conservationists continue to express strong support for the project even with the deaths of sheep and lions.
“Too much has been said that sheep do not belong there, that the city is too close to sheep habitat. The naysayers are what we call city slickers who are emotional thinkers,” said Bobby Boido, a Tucson hunter and conservationist.
Plans call for relocating an additional 30 bighorns to the Catalinas this fall, and another 30 in 2015.
Sacco emphasized that the project is continually being reevaluated, and plans could be changed in response to developments “on the ground.”
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz