Bighorn sheep could return to Catalinas by fall 2013 | Environment
The bighorn sheep hasn’t been seen in the Catalinas since the 1990s, and now an advisory group is suggesting the animal could be reintroduced as soon as the fall of 2013.
Pusch Ridge Wilderness is the proposed site of release for the first 30 bighorn sheep, with an overall goal of releasing 100 animals total throughout the area over the next three years. This total number is taking into account anticipated lamb births, estimated yearling survival rates, and natural mortality.
In a recent news release Raul Vega had this to say,
“The goal the Santa Catalina Bighorn Sheep Restoration Project is to restore a healthy, viable and self-sustaining population of desert bighorn sheep to the range that coexists with an equally healthy native predator population in a naturally functioning ecosystem.” Vega is Regional Supervisor of Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) in Tucson.
“The project dovetails with a larger, holistic restoration effort to mitigate human impacts, improve habitat in the Catalinas and return fire as a natural process necessary for proper habitat functioning,” added Randy Serraglio with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Advisory Committee, established in December 2012, is comprised of local representatives from the following organizations who are working closely with AGFD and the Coronado National Forest (CNF) personnel:
- Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society,
- The Wilderness Society,
- Sky Island Alliance,
- Arizona Wilderness Coalition,
- Center for Biological Diversity.
“The Advisory Committee members bring different perspectives to the discussion but we share common values around an appreciation for Arizona’s wildlife and natural heritage,” said Mike Quigley, Arizona Representative of The Wilderness Society.
Arizona Game and Fish Commissioner J.W. Harris serves as a liaison to the committee for the Game and Fish Commission.
“The Santa Catalina Mountains are located adjacent to the second largest urban area in Arizona. Community interest in wildlife management and conservation issues is relatively high,” Harris noted. “So the committee was formed to address the potentially complex challenges posed by the species, the location, and the nature of the community.”
Broad-based community support is needed, Harris added, if the project is to overcome other challenges, such as funding, predator management, and use of prescribed fire.
Each of the sheep would be fitted with a state-of-the-art satellite GPS collar, which will provide ‘real time’ information on location and mortality of the sheep wearing it. By using these collars, monitoring efforts will enable managers to make informed management decisions as the information from collars becomes available.
This technology comes with a cost though, currently the overall project cost is estimated at $600,000 over the next three years. A public and private fund raising effort is currently underway to secure necessary funding to complete the project. Sponsorship opportunities are available through the Arizona Game and Fish Department at (520) 628-5376 and tax deductable donations may be made at: http://adbss.org/donate.html.
“This is an expensive and sensitive project and we need to do it right.” said Brian Dolan past President of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. “We need to carefully think through scenarios and develop an appropriate plan for success.”
The Pusch Ridge Wilderness was once the home of a native population of desert bighorn sheep, with a population estimate that ranged from 75 to 150 animals in 1979. This population started its decline in the late 1980s, with no real understanding of why. Many believe the following were factors in the decline: urban encroachment, human disturbance in sheep habitat, disease within the sheep population, fire suppression, and predation.
The project is currently under consideration, due to four key factors that increase the likelihood of success:
***Improved habitat in much of the Catalinas resulting from the Bullock Fire in 2002 and the Aspen Fire in 2003, which removed unnaturally dense vegetation and reduced fuel loads.
***The Coronado’s anticipated use of prescribed fire in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness under FireScape, a landscape-scale fire and ecosystem management program, intended to re-establish a natural fire regime that reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire, improves wildlife habitat and sustains the natural ecosystem processes.
***Current and projected availability of desert bighorn sheep from other healthy populations within the state from the Yuma and Mesa regions.
***Trail restrictions currently in place within the Coronado's defined Bighorn Sheep Management Area that will be enforced and are important in preventing disturbance to reintroduced desert bighorn sheep, particularly during the lambing season.
Planning meetings by the committee will continue to be held throughout the project to guide all aspects of the sheep restoration effort to provide the highest likelihood of success.