One month ago, the Arizona Game and Fish Department released 31 bighorn sheep into Catalina State Park. Since then, at least two sheep have been killed by mountain lions, and subsequently, two mountain lions have been killed by Game and Fish in response.
Going into the three- to five-year-project, officials understood there was a high probability of some of the sheep dying, going as far as to install a mortality alert on the GPS collar of each animal. The collar will alert game and fish officials if the animal is inactive for more than eight hours.
Mark Hart, public information officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, was aware some of the sheep could be killed by mountain lions.
“A little over 30 sheep were released there and their chances of survival, if there is not some effort to keep the predator population at bay... They simply won’t survive,” Hart told local media outlets.
However, residents aren’t completely sold on the program, nor the Game and Fish Department’s reaction to kill the mountain lions.
SaddleBrooke resident Jacklyn Hall opposed the project from the start.
“I don’t think it was the right thing to do,” Hall said as she was hiking a trail in Catalina State Park near where the sheep were released last month. “I am completely for nature. They do what works for them. There are, I think, a lot of mountain lions in the area, and I don’t think [the sheep] stand a chance.”
Though the bighorn sheep population fizzled out in the late 1970s, The Arizona Game and Fish Department felt this was a good time to reintroduce the sheep and it stays true to what the department tries to accomplish.
“We are committed to reestablishing native wildlife within the historic ranges within the state. That is what we do,” Hart said last month. “The Catalina’s are the second best sheep habitat in the state according to our surveys. And frankly, we think they have an intrinsic value there.”
Northwest resident Kerry Kutler, who was hiking back from Romero Pools, said it is a “ridiculous situation.”
“To try and introduce them again seems unnatural,” he said. ‘It’s not a good place for bighorn sheep. There is too much coverage for mountain lions and they get eaten up. And I don’t know why they should kill the mountain lions – I like mountain lions.”
Kutler feels the deer, javelinas and mountain lions have established their grounds and have been able to live and repopulate together.
Kutler admitted he wouldn’t have as much of a problem with the situation if the Game and Fish Department simply dropped off the sheep and let nature run its course.
“But to force the results you want seems beyond the scope,” Kutler added.
There are also those who are in line with the department’s vision. They understand there are going to be setbacks within the sheep’s population and know this was a multi-year project, but feel strongly against killing one animal in order to save another animal.
Sara Lee Wilson and her husband Marty Wilson were in Tucson on a vacation from Oregon as they hiked Catalina State Park last week. They know this project is not a simple, short-term project, and they are in favor of reintroducing the sheep into the Santa Catalina Mountains, but question the way this situation has been handled.
“I think looking at it in the long-term, which is what we prefer to do, the sheep and the mountain lions will survive by themselves if we keep our fingers out of the pie,” Marty said. “We need to stop trying to manipulate this stuff.”
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.