I’m in Tucson for the month to explore the subject of bighorn sheep and visit with relatives. We’re staying in a rental house nestled along the base of the Santa Catalina mountains. In years past, I’ve explored Tucson’s general area, but I’ve never had a prolonged stay within the city proper.
Tucson has a beautiful backdrop. Besides being cradled by the Santa Catalinas, which rise up to 9000 feet, its eastern border is Saguaro National Park East, and its western border is the National Park West. Other smaller sky islands dot Tucson’s surrounding. The foothills of the Catalinas are filled with stately Saguaro cactus, like tall multi-armed soldiers guarding the mountain itself. The main two lane artillery, Catalina Scenic Highway, pushes ever upward through numerous ecosystems, from desert scrub through pine-oak woodlands and finally to Mt. Lemmon and a subalpine forest. The mountain, so close to a city of half a million people, is a playground for cyclists, equestrians, climbers, hikers, ORVer’s, campers and even target practitioners. What stood out for me amidst the beauty of the landscape was the development that’s skyrocketing. Trophy homes and golf courses clasp the edge right up to the public lands. Suburbia surrounds the National Park. The desert floor is a sea of traffic and homes between the surrounding mountain ranges.
Desert bighorn sheep once roamed freely from range to range across the desert floor. Called a metapopulation, this allowed the sheep to search for precious water sources, food, and escape habitat from predators. The Santa Catalinas can only support about 120 bighorns, a tiny population vulnerable to genetic decline, drought, and disease. But with connections to other populations in surrounding ranges, these sheep could exchange genetics, ensuring their survival. Walk-abouts are built into the hard-wiring of bighorn sheep, in particular males, for this very reason.
This scenario was what populated the Sky Islands of southern Arizona for thousands of years with bighorn sheep. Through market hunting, disease from domestic sheep and habitat destruction from livestock, the population decline probably began slowly with the Spanish in the early 1600s, only to fall steeply in the 1800s with the influx of miners and settlers into the area. But bighorns persisted in the Catalinas while other nearby ranges winked out, probably because of the diversity of habitat and how large the range is compared to others.
Joe Sheeley grew up in Tucson. As a boy, he watched bighorns on the mountains, fascinated with their agility, spryness, and ability to negotiate even the toughest terrain. But by 1996, the Catalina bighorn herd had disappeared. The Arizona Game and Fish was sending biologists to Pusch Ridge, the favorite escape haunts of the sheep, to periodically scout for sheep, yet they always came up empty. New rules were created with the hope if there were sheep they could be protected: No dogs on Pusch Ridge trails; no hiking off-trail during lambing season. Yet no lambs, rams or ewes were ever seen.
Sheeley is the former Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society president. With the influx of new disease science, in hindsight he has his own theory of what happened.
“In the late 1980s a ram made it all the way from the Superstitions to the Catalinas.”
“The Superstitions are east of Phoenix. That’s a long trek,” I commented.
“Those sheep that had been transplanted from the Kofa mountain range to the Canyon Lake Superstition area had yellow ear tags. That’s how we know where he came from. In my opinion, there is no telling what that ram came into contact with in his journey to the Catalinas. I really believe he ran across hobby domestic sheep or goats, and I think that herd got infected with disease and died off very quickly.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, game agencies, fueled by money and demand from hunting groups along with the awareness of the steep losses of bighorns across the West, began intensively translocating Rocky Mountain and Desert Bighorns into their once native ranges. Arizona Game and Fish (AZGF) was no exception. Ramping up reintroductions across the state, they had done extensive evaluations of historical ranges, analyzing water availability, quality of habitat, domestic sheep density, human development, expansion and escape potential. They rated ranges on a scale, then came back and looked at even finer details such as vegetation, and diversity of wildlife. Those that rated highest were the first translocations. Although the Catalinas were of highest quality, the mountain was put on the back burner for relocations.
AZGF had been doing relocations in low density population areas where people didn’t care or pay attention to their predator management policies. Clearing lions off of reintroduction areas beforehand wouldn’t fly in the progressive, environmentally-minded city of Tucson. Even the agency’s somewhat scaled-down predator policy for the Kofas would be highly controversial. The agency had to figure out a way to gain the public’s trust in order to put sheep back on the mountain. State game agencies garner their monies from hunting and fishing tags. Their primary support comes from hunters, the culture of game agencies tends to be hunters, and their primary audience is hunters.
Amber Munig of AZGF told me ““[The plan for the Catalinas] was unique because it was next to a large metropolitan area. And we knew there would be a lot of interest in how we would approach it and a lot of controversy in any kind of predation management we were to implement.”
To the agencies credit, they embarked on a bold idea—a working group comprised of a variety of stakeholders. They pledged to abide by the group’s plan, which would be adaptive depending upon if conditions were to change. Four environmental groups opted in, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Sky Island Alliance. On the other side were sportsmen, Arizona Game and Fish, and Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. Disagreement abounded, but the biggest rift was the mountain lion strategy. As one can imagine, opinions ranged from doing no predator controls to clearing the mountain of lions in advance of translocations.
Reintroductions of bighorn sheep are typically done in three to four rounds of thirty sheep. A small herd of thirty sheep, neophytes to a new habitat, devoid of any resident sheep which can guide them to prime escape habitat, are exceptionally vulnerable to predation. In previous translocations, the AZGF usually took what they considered the safest, and easiest, way to give new introductions a leg up by “pre-treating” the area and raising lion quotas. By using a diverse Advisory Board that had to reach a consensus, a middle ground was guaranteed to be reached.
Every bighorn would be collared instead of the customary one out of every three bighorns. And no lions would be collared. Lions would be pursued and killed only after evidence showed they’d killed a bighorn, and the pursuit was to be cut off after five days. Females with kittens would be off-limits. Mortalities would be identified through the sheep GPS signal and only then would a pursuit be triggered. This was a complete turnabout to the Kofa AZGF plan where every lion in a wide net surrounding the refuge was collared, making tracking and dispatching easy.
The first capture and translocation took place in November of 2013. Thirty-one bighorns, seven rams and twenty-four ewes, were released. The captures came from the Trigo mountains near Yuma and the Plomosas near Quartzite. By the end of March 2014, sixteen sheep were dead, fourteen by lions. Because of the difficult terrain and the policy of no lion collaring, only three lions had been removed. Houndsmen had to run the lion off a kill to identify the offending lion. One lion went down a cliff face, too steep for the dogs to pursue. Some went into developed areas so the chase was called off. Although the local paper had done many stories on the Advisory Group’s plan before the initial translocation, and there had been several public meetings, the steep losses produced a public outcry on all sides. The Game and Fish held a public meeting in the spring. While the previous three meetings were lightly attended, this one was packed, with protesters holding signs outside the meeting hall.
“We went out of the way to make sure the public knew what we were up to,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity. “People tend to not pay attention to something like that until there’s a dead lion. Then everybody is keenly interested.”
Mark Hart, public information officer for AZGF, agreed the plan had already been highly publicized.
“We wanted to be transparent. The grand bargain was: Is it worth it to put bighorn sheep back on the mountain to lose some mountain lions. The mountain lion population was, in our estimation, quite healthy. Based on hunt data and field data prior to the project, we estimated 67 mountain lions in that mountain range and the one connected to it by a pass”
My month in Tucson coincided with the worst drought year in decades. Despite the lack of moisture, during my hikes in the Catalinas and surrounding ranges, I still observed coatis, mule deer, cos deer, and javelinas even with the heavy toll of human activity. The AZGF knew there was plenty of sufficient food for lions. Everyone had expected some losses, but losing half the sheep was a shock.
With the GPS collars in place, managers could visualize where the sheep were moving. Sheeley says the first release site was based on his historic observations, but many of the sheep, unfamiliar with the mountain, headed for the high forests. Without clear visibility, good escape habitat, and naivete as to their bearings, they were easy pickings for lions. Luckily, the remaining sheep found the prime habitat of Pusch Ridge. There they thrived. In fact, at least five lambs were born in the spring with the herd stabilizing. No mortalities were observed for the next seven months. The advisory board had stood firm in their consensus on lions, even in the heat of controversy. With the good news, the second release was scheduled for November and another thirty sheep. This time using their generational genetic compass, those sheep headed for their kin right up to Pusch Ridge. Two more releases took place through 2016.
Hart tells me what he felt happened was some of the sheep came from mountain ranges where no lions existed.
“Most of the sheep came from the Yuma area, but one year we did take one-half of the allotment from the Superstition mountains. Those sheep did not fare well. One reason is they did not have prior exposure to pneumonia and a few of them got it and died. You can’t prove this scientifically, but what we felt was also happening was they were not as well adapted to the presence of lions as the Yuma area ones were. So the lions picked off a few.”
By the end of the project, eight lions were taken out over the four years of the relocation project. If there hadn’t been an advisory board representing a wide variety of voices, it’s almost certain AZGF would have resorted to clearing the area of lions before a second release commenced. As of fall 2020, seventy-five bighorns were on the mountain, the predator program retired in 2016. Lamb recruitment is almost 50% (typical is 25%), with many sightings of uncollared rams and ewes, indicating they were born on the mountain. Since the mountain only historically supported about 120 sheep, the Catalina bighorn herd is well on its way to success.
The Catalinas may be a model of how these relocations should be conducted. Game agencies are responsible for managing state wildlife, but wildlife, considered in the “public trust,” means all the public. A working group representing a variety of viewpoints is a good model for all wildlife agencies, especially on contentious topics such as predator management. Arizona Game and Fish should be applauded for going out on a limb and taking the chance. And they abided by the groups recommendations. When circumstances became dicey, they didn’t revert to easy knee-jerk reactions, but stuck to the plan hammered out by the advisory board.
Even so, the future of the Catalina herd is unknown. That herd along with others on isolated ranges in the desert Southwest, face a myriad of problems into the future. One of the biggest unknowns is the consequences bighorns will face with climate change and the drying of the West.