TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Arizona Game and Fish officials have just confirmed a ninth bighorn sheep death.
Officials say on Jan. 31, a pregnant ewe was found dead and it was determined that the mortality was due to predation. Game and Fish officials said the area the ewe was found in is characterized by steep slopes and cliffs.
Officials said the evidence indicates that a cat, perhaps a young mountain lion or a bobcat was likely involved, but due to heavy rains, investigators failed to find fresh tracks or a trail, and the cat did not appear to have returned to feed on the sheep again. Thus, the animal that preyed on the sheep was not removed.
Thirty of the 31 sheep released were outfitted with collars. As of Feb. 2, Game and Fish officials said 21 of the thirty collared sheep were known to be alive on the mountains.
To date there have been nine sheep mortalities. Seven of the sheep were killed by mountain lions, one by a wild cat, another died of myopathy.
While disappointed, Joe Sheehy, a member of the Bighorn sheep advisory committee said they weren't ready to give up just yet.
"I'm not ready to throw in the towel, but I'm also not ready to have the mindset of charge-on, whatever happens let's keep going. I would ask the public to be more patient. We are going to meet and talk about what adaptations we need to make in our predator management plan, and how we deal with this," said Sheehy.
In their latest briefing, Game and Fish officials said another challenge they had noticed was the technology used to track the sheep, not working as well as they had hoped.
Officials said they were using state-of-the-art GPS collars to monitor the Bighorn sheep. Although they were on the cutting edge of wildlife management technology, they had limitations and presented some unique challenges. Game and Fish officials said they relied on satellite links daily to keep track of the sheep. The collars were programmed to take four GPS readings everyday. Each collar was also programmed to send a transmission at a pre-determined time each day, relaying the GPS points gathered the previous day. To receive the signals there needed to be minimal interference between the collar and the satellite.
Bighorn sheep inhabited rugged rocky terrain in an environment with steep cliff faces and canyon walls. Thick topography, vegetation, and cliffs could block the signal, or delay the transmission.
Officials said this was causing a delay in providing managers with information used to determine an animals location and movements, as well as providing a diagnostic tool to determine if reported mortality events were accurate.
Officials said, over the past few weeks they had noticed that 40% of the collars uplinked successfully, and on some days that number was as low as 13%. Officials said they were working closely with the collar manufacturers to identify windows of time when satellite transmissions might be more successful. Since then, things had improved, and they were hopeful it would get better.
As a back-up, wildlife officers were using a radio receiver and antenna to receive the signal. Although it worked, Game and Fish officials described it as labor intensive and more prone to errors in tracking.
"We are adapting everyday. Day by day sometimes. Right now we're hoping to meet with the committee and see how we need to change things," said Brochu.
The project which comes with a price tag of about $600,000 is funded through taxes on hunting equipment, firearms, and private donations.
The goal was to release another 70 sheep into the Catalina mountains in the next two years.
Opponents of the program said, this ninth Bighorn sheep death made it clear, the program was not working.
A spokesman with the group Friends of Wild Animals said the next step should be for those behind this program to find the courage and stop the project, and to relocate more sheep into the Catalinas was a cruel and irresponsible move.
Sheehy said similar projects had been very successful in other parts of Arizona and other states, although he warned it took time. In some cases it took 18-20 years to establish a successful herd.
Game and Fish officials are reminding hikers to watch out for trail restrictions around the Catalinas.
You can read more about the trail restrictions at: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/coronado/news-events/?cid=STELPRDB5446651
For more on the Bighorn sheep project you can visit the Arizona Game and Fish website at: http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/bighornSheep.shtml