Bighorn sheep - a species that was practically the symbol of the Catalina Mountains before the herd there died out in the 1990s - will soon roam the range again.
State wildlife officials said 30 bighorns will be moved from a healthy herd near Yuma to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness in the Catalinas this fall. Additional transplants in the following two years will bring the total to more than 100 animals.
The officials had acknowledged in February that a reintroduction was being considered, but they emphasized then that it was "not a foregone conclusion."
Now it is.
"Our goal is to establish a healthy, viable bighorn population in the Catalinas as we had there in the past," when the herd was estimated at 75 to 150 animals in 1979, said Raul Vega, regional supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "I think it will be good for the wildlife, good for the public, and even good for the (tourism) economy."
WHY IT COULD WORK
An advisory committee - made up of wildlife and environmental groups - worked with the Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Forest Service in recent months to weigh the pros and cons before recommending the bighorn reintroduction.
Committee members studied possible reasons for the decline of the herd - including urban encroachment, human disturbance, disease, fire suppression and predation.
The obvious questions they faced: What's different now? Why would it make sense to move healthy sheep to a place where a herd had died out?
The groups and government agencies found "four key factors that increase the likelihood of success." They include:
• Improved habitat in much of the Catalinas as a result of the Bullock Fire in 2002 and the Aspen Fire in 2003. Those fires removed unnaturally dense vegetation that can restrict the movements of bighorns and provide cover for predators such as mountain lions.
• Plans by the Forest Service to conduct prescribed burns in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and improve wildlife habitat.
• Availability of desert bighorn sheep from healthy populations near Yuma and northeast of Mesa that could be transplanted to the Catalinas.
• Trail restrictions in place in a defined Bighorn Sheep Management Area in the Catalinas that will prevent disturbance of sheep, especially during the lambing season. These include restrictions on dogs and off-trail travel in the area.
"I think these factors are an alignment of several stars - the biggest of which are probably the Bullock and Aspen fires that burned a lot of the mountain and created a lot of bighorn sheep habitat," said Brian Dolan, a past president and member of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.
Vega of the Game and Fish Department and spokesmen for some of the advisory committee groups said re-establishing bighorns in the Catalinas will benefit people and the economy as well as the sheep.
"If we're successful in restoring a viable herd up there, people will have opportunities to see them," said Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Hikers and people using binoculars at the foot of the mountains might catch a glimpse of the sheep.
"But it's going to be very important for people to follow the trail restrictions that are in place regarding dogs, especially when the sheep are lambing," Serraglio said.
He said the bighorns would likely be a tourist attraction.
"These mountains are a major driver of our local economy," Serraglio said. "An iconic species like the bighorn sheep is a big part of that. It will be a reason people will want to come here."
The overall cost of the reintroduction project - estimated at $600,000 over the next three years - will include global positioning system collars fitted on each animal, Game and Fish officials said.
The collars will provide real-time information about the bighorns' location and any deaths that might occur.
Facts about desert bighorn sheep:
• Adult males, rams, can weigh up to 225 pounds. Adult females, ewes, can weigh up to 140 pounds.
• A typical lifespan for bighorns is 10 to 12 years, but some can live 17 years or longer.
• Ewe horns are usually 10 to 13 inches long. Ram horns can measure 30 to 40 inches along the outside curl.
• Bighorns are diurnal animals, meaning they're active during the day.
• Animals that prey on bighorn sheep include mountain lions, golden eagles, bobcats and coyotes.
Source: Arizona Game and Fish Department
partners in the plan
Several wildlife, wilderness and environmental groups made up an advisory committee that worked with state and federal officials on a plan for reintroducing bighorn sheep to the Catalina Mountains. They include:
• The Wilderness Society
• Sky Island Alliance
• Arizona Wilderness Coalition
• Center for Biological Diversity
• Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at email@example.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz