With 'sustainable' bighorn herd in Catalinas, G&F says no more mtn lion killings
With a population of more than 80 bighorn sheep back at home in the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Arizona Game and Fish Department is taking a more hands-off approach to how it manages the herd.
The biggest change, announced this week, is that the agency will no longer hunt and kill mountain lions which prey on the herd in the mountains just north of Tucson.
"It's up to the sheep now," said Mark Hart of Game and Fish. "We're moving into a more passive management phase."
Predator control was the most controversial part of the plan to reintroduce bighorn sheep to the Catalinas. Members of the public, and some environmental groups, believed it didn't make sense to kill mountain lions for doing what comes naturally to them — eating sheep.
Adding to the controversy was that the first six months of the reintroduction program were hard on prey and predators alike. Eleven Bighorns were killed by mountain lions during that period and agents for Game and Fish killed three mountain lions. But the department stressed that predator control was a temporary measure, only in place long enough to help the bighorns become established.
With the reintroduction of an additional 15 ewes and 5 rams at the end of November, the known number of Bighorns stands at 85, a population Game and Fish believes is self-sustaining.
The decision to stop predator control came a year earlier than expected. The last cougar to be hunted under the plan was killed in October.
Hart says the department will continue to collect data from GPS collars, photos submitted by hikers, and observe the sheep by helicopter. The department will conduct another survey of the herd next fall. If the numbers appear low, it may bring in more bighorns from other parts of the state to reinforce the herd.
"We'll try to be alert to things like disease, such as respiratory infections and pneumonia, which can be hard on bighorn sheep," said Hart. "It takes nine years on average to establish a bighorn sheep herd."
There are 39 sheep with collars alive in the range, including five ewes and one ram who were released Nov. 22. Those animals were among the 15 ewes and five rams captured the previous day in the Plomosa Mountains near Quartzsite.
Hart and other supporters are optimistic about the future of bighorn sheep in the Santa Catalinas. After the first group of sheep was released at Oracle State Park in November of 2013, they moved into areas of rocky outcroppings with dense vegetation. This is also the preferred hunting habitat of mountains lions. But eventually, the sheep found their way to their former home in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area. Here, steep cliffs with little vegetation make it easier for the sheep to escape cougars.
In Arizona, bighorn sheep numbers began to fall during the early 1900s, and in 1957 only 1,500 remained. They disappeared entirely from the Catalinas by 1995. Because of relocation programs like this one, the numbers have rebounded to 5,500 bighorns in the state.