TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The re-introduction of sheep has led to some heated debate in the community after Arizona Game and Fish officials released 31 Bighorn sheep into the Santa Catalinas.
Since the release, at least 8 sheep have been killed, and so have two mountain lion that attacked the sheep. Many opponents of the program have been questioning if the program is working. Some are quick to say it has failed.
To answer that question, Tucson News Now put in a request to go behind the scenes with Game and Fish officials, to get a first-hand look at how the program works.
In a community briefing two weeks ago, for the first time we heard Bighorn sheep advisory board members admit, failure could be an option, but they are asking the community to be patient and give the program a chance.
Advisory board members said programs like this have been successful in dozens of mountain ranges throughout America, and in some cases it can take 18-20 years to establish a healthy population.
We asked Game and Fish officials to walk us through the program and show us what they do. Ben Brochu, a wildlife manager with Game and Fish took Tucson News Now out in the field with him, to show us the sophisticated equipment they are using to track the Bighorn sheep on the mountains.
"What we are doing is trying to pick up VHF signals from the collars on the Bighorn sheep," said Brochu.
He is one of the men assigned to count sheep, using an antennae-like piece of equipment, Brochu is keeping track of heartbeats. Each beep on his radio signals a sheep is still alive out in the mountains.
"If it's been inactive for more than 10 hours the collar alerts us to this mortality alert. Beeps that are two times as fast," said Brochu.
Brochu said it's not un-common to get mortality alerts, especially when the sheep are asleep.
If they are unsuccessful to pick up a healthy signal, Brochu said wildlife officers would trek through the desert and try to find the animal.
Losing eight sheep, mostly to lions something they took personally.
Brian Dolan, president of the Bighorn sheep Society said every death was a blow to him. Even though they expected a few sheep deaths, he still took it to heart.
It's a personal loss for a lot of people, not just me. We want this program to be a success. I am concerned that people have not given this a chance, they're making a knee jerk reaction," said Dolan.
A group called Friends of Wild Animals banded together after two mountain lions were killed by Game and Fish Hunters, and started protesting outside Game and Fish headquarters.
The group is questioning the success of the re-introduction. Ricardo Small a member of the Friends of Wild Animals called it a "suspect program."
Ben Pachano agreed.
"Game and fish is prioritizing one species big horns over another which is mountain lions," said Pachano, also a member of Friends of Wild Animals.
Opponents said killing mountain lions was not the right approach and questioned whether Game and Fish officials were killing one species to save another.
"This is a case of trying to re-establish the natural order of things in the mountain range," said Mark Hart, a public information officer with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Opponents felt there was nothing natural about killing one animal to save another.
"To kill an apex predator like a mountain lion to enhance the survivability of big horn sheep is not the right approach," said Small.
Members of the advisory board said the wildlife management program hoped to save the bighorn species and help them thrive. Ironically, they said some would have to die to save the whole.
"When I hear that I'm not grieving for the individual. I'm grieving for the deceased, and the chances that this program will be successful," said Dolan.
He added that he had always maintained that failure was an option.
"I'm fine with failure of the project as long as I know I've done everything humanly possible to make it successful," said Dolan.
Members said the re-introduction program came with a $600,000 for three years, majority of it was privately funded. The rest of the money came from taxes on hunting equipment and ammunition.
A chunk of the money was spent on buying the best tracking technology available. Brochu said they were using satellite and radio waves to track the sheep.
"If people see us around town, sometimes standing on our vehicles or on high points, running this antenna, we're trying to determine where the sheep are on the mountain," said Brochu.
Bighorn sheep were once native to the Santa Catalina mountains, and eventually died off for various reasons that some say, remain a mystery.
Opponents say the same reasons could lead to an eventual failure of this program. Many felt the Catalinas were not the right environment for this project.
Wildlife officials and advisory board members say the program has been successful in many states.
"The first restoration effort in Arizona was in the 1950's. It took 18 years for that population to be established. These things can work, sometimes they do fail though," said Brochu.
Game and Fish officials said a second herd of Bighorn sheep was scheduled to be released into the Catalinas in the fall.
Some opponents are criticizing the department saying Game and Fish officials are releasing sheep into the mountains with the eventual goal of hunting them. Bighorn sheep hunting licences are highly coveted in Arizona.
We asked Game and Fish officials if that was their goal. Officials said while that was not the goal of the program, if they were successful in establishing a healthy population of sheep, hunting permits could be issued, but that could be more than a decade or two down the road.