Let's clear something up right off the bat. The measure of success for reintroducing desert bighorn sheep into the Santa Catalina Mountains is sheep and lions coexisting naturally in a healthy ecosystem, as they did for centuries.
The path to that success involves a holistic restoration of the Catalinas and a new way of doing wildlife management. The Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee (CBAC) has come together to thoroughly investigate and address all relevant issues, not just mountain lions.
Desert bighorn sheep, once numerous in the Catalinas, died out in the 1990s for reasons that are not fully understood. Urban encroachment, human disturbance and changes in habitat resulting from fire suppression were likely factors. Disease or increased predation may have played a part.
The decision to return bighorn sheep to the Catalinas is motivated by several key conditions that make it possible to address most of the likely causes for their disappearance.
First is the return of fire to the Catalinas. The huge fires 10 years ago burned away much of the unnaturally dense vegetation built up during decades of fire suppression, spurring the regrowth of a diverse array of plants that has significantly improved habitat for sheep.
Moreover, the Coronado National Forest is moving forward with its FireScape plan to return fire to its rightful role in the ecological equation - as a regular occurrence that's inherently beneficial for plants and wildlife. Low-intensity prescribed burns and other management actions can help ensure that neither people nor wildlife suffer the effects of a badly distorted fire regime again.
Next, with a better understanding of the negative impacts of human disturbance on sheep, all of us who enjoy the Catalinas can do a better job of respecting and enforcing trail restrictions designed to protect bighorn, especially during lambing season.
Thanks in part to the conservation efforts of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, bighorn are thriving in other areas of the state, which makes it possible to transplant some to the Catalinas.
Finally, there is the unavoidable issue of lions preying on sheep, a natural dynamic that is fraught with misperception and emotion. There is no hard evidence that increased predation caused the disappearance of the Catalinas bighorn herd, but it is possible that the unnatural increase in dense cover tipped the balance toward predators.
If that is true, then the return of fire will solve that problem. However, in the early phases of the reintroduction, when sheep numbers are still low and the herd is vulnerable, it may be necessary to temporarily reduce lion predation to allow the herd to become established.
Not all lions prey on sheep- there are plenty of deer and other prey in the Catalinas- but even a single lion that makes a habit of it can have a devastating impact on a small herd. Since each bighorn transplanted to the Catalinas will wear a GPS collar, it'll be possible to react quickly to a mortality signal, determine the cause of death and, if necessary, track and remove such a lion.
None of us wants a wholesale slaughter of mountain lions. The reintroduction will have failed long before anything like that occurs.
It's understandable that people have concerns about this facet of the project and the way such wildlife management decisions are handled. This is a key reason why we agreed to form the advisory committee-to add accountability and a community voice to the process. It is to the Arizona Game and Fish Department's credit that they've invited such input.
Again, the goal of this project is sheep coexisting in a natural balance with predators, including lions. We believe it's achievable if we address all of the factors we're able to influence, not just lions.
Desert bighorn sheep belong in the Catalinas, and their disappearance is almost certainly due to human influences. We believe that correcting those mistakes and giving them a second chance is the right thing to do.
Community support will be critical to the success of this effort. The project will not be funded with tax dollars, so the funds must come from sportsman fees and contributions from organizations, businesses and individuals. To learn more, visit www.CatalinaBighornRestoration.org, or look for the Game and Fish "Friends of Santa Catalina Bighorn Sheep" page on Facebook.
Brian Dolan, Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society; Mike Quigley, the Wilderness Society, and Randy Serraglio, Center for Biological Diversity, are joined in this view by Brian Ham, sportsman; Jenny Neeley, Sky Island Alliance; Trica Oshant-Hawkins, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, and Joe Sheehey, Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. They are members of the Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee.