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Bighorn Sheep to Once Again Roam the Catalinas


Friday, November 15, 2013   

PHOENIX – Desert bighorn sheep will return to the Santa Catalina Mountains outside Tucson this weekend for the first time in more than a decade. Thirty bighorns from outside of Yuma will be released into the Pusch Ridge area of Mount Lemmon.

Mike Quigley, Arizona representative of The Wilderness Society, says the eventual goal is a self-sustaining herd of at least a hundred animals.

"And there's not a sufficient source of sheep to do that all in one go,” he says. “So, the current plan is 30 this week, 30 more this time next year, 30 more the year after that – and then ideally, recruitment will balance natural mortality and no further human intervention will be required."

The multi-year reintroduction project is a joint effort of an advisory committee including The Wilderness Society and other conservation and sportsmen's groups working with the Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish.

Environmental and sportsmen's groups sometimes find themselves on the opposite sides of issues.

But in this case, there’s a common goal, says Brian Dolan, former president of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.

"To have a functioning ecosystem and, on that mountain, a functioning ecosystem would include bighorn sheep,” he explains. “They used to be there, and we would like to see them returned."

The advisory group believes fire is also part of a functioning ecosystem.

Another former Bighorn Sheep Society leader, Joe Sheehey, says major fires in 2003 and 2004 vastly improved the mountain's vegetation quality for forage, and also improved bighorn survival chances by opening up the landscape.

"Sheep depend on their eyesight to avoid predation,” he explains. “And the further they can see, the more likely they are to avoid any large predators."

Hunting is not part of the current discussion and won't be for many years, adds Sheehey.

"Typically in a transplanted herd, it's over 10 years – and that's if it is successful – before hunting ever takes place," he says.

Mike Quigley of The Wilderness Society says he hopes it won't be too long before hikers in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness are able to spot bighorn sheep from the trails, which he says would be a pretty exciting thing.

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