The Arizona Game and Fish Department next year will decide finally whether or not to put an end to efforts to replenish nearly extinct bighorn sheep populations on Pusch Ridge at the western end of the Catalina Mountains.

Although not part of the department's officially budgeted work, a decision has been made to "put the issue to rest at last," said Tice Supplee, Game and Fish branch chief of game operations

For years a battle has been waged between those who point to the continual degradation of bighorn populations as a major reason for relaxing five -year-old restrictions on hikers and dogs and those who have been fighting for habitat preservation and other measures to save the bighorn.

Three years ago, Game and Fish officials completed a 500-page study titled "Evaluation of Bighorn Sheep Habitat in Arizona," ranking various locations for their transplant potential.

Pusch Ridge ranked 21st out of 82 sites after scoring zero in two areas: "human use," and "range expansion potential, " although it scored well in such categories as topography, water availability and an absence of cattle.

A more recent study this past summer showed some improvement, but not enough to substantially change the ranking, said Brian Wakeling, big game supervisor for Game and Fish.

The low rankings have drawn outcries from bighorn backers arguing for the implementation of a reservation system that would be highly restrictive in terms of limiting the number of hikers allowed in the Catalinas in order to boost habitat rankings.

On the other side, hikers argued that if there are no longer bighorn sheep on Pusch Ridge, there shouldn't be any restrictions and a relocation effort would be a waste of time.

Supplee said one of the shortcomings of recent studies is that they might not have gone far enough in terms of habitat study.

In what may be a "last gasp effort " to determine the viability of a relocation effort, Game and Fish officials are going back to review not only the territory covered in the previous study, but the backside of the Catalinas as well, including the area known as Wilderness of Rocks below Summerhaven.

The previous study looked only at areas where the bighorn sheep tended to be found, not at the Catalinas interior, areas where the bighorn once were common but haven't been seen in years, she said.

Two years ago, Jim Heffelfinger, regional game specialist for the Game and Fish Department, estimated the Pusch Ridge bighorn population at "fewer than 10." Asked to estimate now, Heffelfinger said it's probably "fewer than five." Twenty years ago there were as many as 125.

The last official aerial survey, conducted in 1997, revealed the presence of a mature ram and a yearling. No such survey has been done since then and at $560 an hour to hire a helicopter, it's highly unlikely another will be done in the foreseeable future, especially with budget limitations currently being imposed by Congress, Heffelfinger said.

Restrictions prepared in 1996 by wildlife specialists with the U.S. Forest Service, Game and Fish and the University of Arizona, in conjunction with plans developed by the Forest Service in 1999 were intended to rebuild the bighorn herd.

The restrictions included a ban on dogs in an 11,000-acre bighorn sheep management area surrounding Pusch Ridge, a limit on the size of hiking and camping parties and a ban on hiking or camping beyond 400 feet of trails during lambing season from Jan. 1 through April 30.

Not until last year, however, was a full-time wilderness area ranger, Mike Wilke, hired to step up enforcement efforts.

Also in 1999, the Forest Service talked about "retooling" its forestwide plan for prescribed burns that would improve bighorn habitat, but those plans were put on hold, said Ronn Senn, district ranger for the Coronado National Forest section of the U.S. Forest Service. Last year they were again placed on hold as Congress indicated it just wasn't willing to finance a retooling. The basic planning for it was done, but little progress was made beyond that, he said.

Now the Forest Service is in the throes of amending its forest plan that would supplement other wildlife management efforts in just the Pusch Ridge area through fire policies directed at getting rid of brush and restoring grasses to the area, setting specific preservation guidelines and allowing naturally caused fires to burn, then monitoring their impacts. Implementation of such a plan isn't expected to take place until 2003, Senn said.

Another plan to conduct a controlled burn of some 3,000 acres in the Romero Canyon area fell through last year when it was decided that the $250,000 cost would be too expensive and the project too dangerous. It would have been the first planned burn in the area in 10 years, he said.

Despite the many setbacks in funding, enforcing and establishing policies that might lead to a rebirth of the bighorn, Senn said he's encouraged.

"I think there's a great chance relocation could work if we take advantage of the increased patrols and other habitat enhancement efforts. I haven't gotten to the point yet of throwing in the towel," he said.

Rick Gerhart, Game and Fish wildlife supervisor, said that while the general opinion now is that the bighorn population on Pusch Ridge has "passed the point of no return" and will "probably never rebound,” recent enforcement actions and the efforts of volunteers to discourage hikers with dogs off leashes from encroaching on the area make relocation efforts worth reconsideration.

Habitat questions, however, are not the only obstacle standing in the way of bighorn relocation plans for Pusch Ridge.

For the past several years there were no surpluses among the bighorn herds in other parts of the state from which to draw. That situation has changed in recent months with surpluses of bighorn in both the Kofa Wildlife Area northeast of Yuma and the Eagle Tails Mountains between Phoenix and Blythe, Calif., Game and Fish officials said.

But Pusch Ridge probably wouldn't get any for some time, even if the most recent re-evaluation warrants such a relocation, Game and Fish officials said.

Heffelfinger said the first bighorn relocation would probably occur in the Grand Canyon area, then in the Kingman area, then Yuma.

Within Region 5, the same region in which Pusch Ridge is located, the first relocation would probably take place in the area near Picket Post in the Mineral Mountains near Superior, he said.

When and if a decision is made to relocate, Game and Fish officials will also be looking at a change in tactics.

Instead of putting 30 to 40 bighorn in one area and fitting them with radio surveillance collars to monitor their movements, smaller groups would be relocated over a broader range, Heffelfinger said.

The hope is that relocation, in addition to the stricter regulations and more aggressive fire policies, may get the bighorn past the negative effects of human interference, weather and other factors that might otherwise interfere with the effort, Wakeling said. When herd populations get below 10, these things have far more negative effects, he said.

"It's worth a try," said Randall Smith, Forest Service natural resources staff officer. "The feeling is if the sheep were released where the stresses were not so great we'd have more success. Although there has been a great deal of impact on lands outside the forest in terms of development, there is still a great deal of habitat available."

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