Bighorn sheep advisory board members address concern on killing mountain lions

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - As protesters gathered outside, the Bighorn Sheep Advisory Committee along with Arizona Game and Fish Department officials gathered inside to hold a press conference to educate the public about the project, and answer questions.

The program has drawn some heat since five bighorn sheep have been found dead since the sheep were released into the Catalina Mountains on Nov. 18, 2013.

Game and Fish marksmen hunted down two suspect mountain lions and killed them after establishing that they were the lions who attacked the sheep.

Advisory committee members say that has been part of the predator management plan all along.

The advisory board is composed of members from several different organizations including the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, the Wilderness Society, the Sky Island Alliance, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, the Center for Biological Diversity, and a Sportsman.

The group said Bighorn sheep were being reintroduced into the mountains because historically it's been their home.  The sheep disappeared from the mountain range in the late 1990s. Some of the reasons attributed to that disappearance are reduced habitat quality after several fires, human disturbance, increased recreation, urbanization, disease and predation.

The $600,000 project will include three targeted releases of about 30 animals each of a span of three to four years. The next release is set to take place later this year, in November.

Advisory board members said they've known all along that some of the sheep would become prey for mountain lions.  All of the sheep are outfitted with high tech GPS collars that are monitored by Game and Fish officials every day.

Officials say the goal has been to let the sheep and lions coexist in a natural balance, but it has been part of their predator management plan to kill some lions that target sheep.

Brian Dolan with the Arizona Bighorn Sheep Society said they knew failure could be an option, but they hoped to do everything they could possibly do, before accepting that.

Officials said Arizona had a healthy population of mountain lions.

Protesters asked board members if every lion that attacked a sheep would be killed.  Board members said no, that was not part of the plan. They would not harm a female lion with kittens, also they would not harm any lions unless they were 100 percent sure it was the suspect lion that had attacked a sheep.

Wildlife officials said there was a high probability that if a mountain lion killed a sheep, it would remain in the area to feed on the carcass.  They called the removal of suspect lions a short term strategy.

Protesters with Friends of Wildlife called this a flawed plan that was doomed to fail.

Bighorn sheep advisory board members said none of the money used for this project was taxpayer money.  It was funded by excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, taxes from firearms and ammunition sales, and private donations.

The advisory committee hopes to hold updates every two weeks to keep the public informed about the project.

Officials said they were hopeful as bighorn sheep had successfully been repopulated in close to a dozen mountain ranges throughout the country.  It could take up to ten years to successfully establish a herd.