For the first time in more than a decade, bighorn sheep are living in the Santa Catalina Mountains. 

Monday morning, 31 sheep, consisting of three adult rams, one ram lamb and the rest being ewes, were released in Catalina State Park through the help of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Coronado National Forest, along with an advisory committee.

The advisory committee is comprised of representatives from the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, the Wilderness Society, Sky Island Alliance, Arizona Wilderness Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Of the bighorn sheep, 15 were taken from the Trigo Mountain Wilderness Area near Yuma and 16 were taken from the Plomosa Mountains near Quartzsite.

Amber Munig, who is the big game management supervisor out of Phoenix, understands this is the beginning of a multi-year project.

“What we want to ultimately end up is a population maybe around 50 plus animals,” Munug said before the release. “And once we have them populating at the level where they are reproducing and not declining in numbers, then we’ll be pretty comfortable with leaving that population and allowing it to continue to establish on its own and grow at its own pace.”

The plan is to add another 30 bighorn sheep to the mountains next year, and if the population needs, a third group will be added a year or two after that.

All of the sheep, with the exception of the lamb, were outfitted with GPS collars. Each morning at 9 a.m., the collars will transmit data of the sheep’s location from the previous day. The collars are also equipped with a “mortality alert,” which will alert Game and Fish officials if the animal is inactive for more than eight hours.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department is currently looking at ways of making the location of the sheep available to the public.

Currently, the overall project is expected to cost $625,000 during the course of the next three years. Of that, $400,000 is expected to come from private donations and a large portion of the remaining costs comes from sale of hunting and fishing licenses. 

Mark Hart, the public information officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, understands how some might question spending that amount of money to move animals from a place they are flourishing to a location where they have previously died.

“We are committed to reestablishing native wildlife within the historic ranges within the state. That is what we do,” Hart said. “The Catalinas are the second best sheep habitat in the state according to our surveys. And frankly, we think they have an intrinsic value there.”

The department has repopulated animals such as the black-tailed prairie dog in the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area near Sonoita, and the Gould’s wild turkey in the Huachuca area.

Knowing the sheep restoration project is expensive, Brian Dolan, a past president of the Bighorn Sheep Society, said, “We need to carefully think through scenarios and develop an appropriate plan for success.”

Dolan is well aware of those plans.

“Ever since I have been a member and an officer of the Bighorn Sheep Society, one of my goals has been to try and get sheep back in the Santa Catalina Mountains,” Dolan said after the release of the sheep Monday. “This is one of those life’s events. Hopefully 10 years from now, when we have a robust population of sheep up on the mountain, everybody here is going to remember this morning.”

Though the event Monday morning was not a public event, numerous people who were a part of the restoration project stood by and watched the 31 sheep take off into the Santa Catalina Mountains.

One of those people in attendance was Tucsonan Nancy Defeo, who was the first person to donate to the project about five years ago.

She learned about the project after White Elementary School, a school near Interstate 19 and Irvington Road, received a heritage grant from the Arizona Game and Fish for a desert tortoise habitat.

She saw the donation as a way to give back.

“I was so excited to get the phone call to come,” Defeo said. Though not a “big donor,” she was honored to be the first person to contribute to the project.

For those who will make it out to the park with hopes of seeing a sheep or two, Mike Quigley, who is a representative of the Wilderness Society, said the best chances of seeing one is when the sheep are active, which is early in the day and at the end of the day.

“I think the opportunity to see bighorn sheep in their natural environment here in the Santa Catalina Mountains is a big attraction for a lot of folks who live here as well as those who will be visiting,” Quigley said. “I would ask folks who are looking for sheep to just be respectful of the mountain and be respectful of the wildlife that lives there.”

Desert bighorn sheep are susceptible to disturbances. Hikers are asked not to bring their dogs while hiking in the area and are asked to stay on designated trails during the lambing season, which is January through April.

The Pusch Ridge Wilderness had about 75 to 150 desert bighorn sheep in 1979. The population began to decline the following year for reasons unknown. But some of the contributing factors may include urban encroachment, human disturbance in the sheep’s habitat, disease within the sheep population, fire suppression and from being preyed on by other animals. 

This project of reestablishing their population in the area was taken at this time due to four key reasons. The habitat in the Santa Catalina Mountains has improved as a result from the Bullock Fire in 2002 and the Aspen Fire in 2003. There is also a prescribed fire planned for the area to help manage the ecosystem to cut down on the risk of “catastrophic wildfires.” Another reason is there are and will be expected availability of desert bighorn sheep in other areas. Lastly, trail restrictions currently in place within the mountains help define the areas designated for the sheep.

For those wishing to help restore the desert bighorn sheep populating in the Santa Catalina Mountains, there is an adopt-a-sheep sponsorship program. Sponsorship levels range from less than $499 to more than $25,000.

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