Request to track Bighorn sheep with helicopters drawing protest - Tucson News Now

Request to track Bighorn sheep with helicopters drawing protest

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As Game and Fish officials digest the loss of the 12th Bighorn sheep in the Catalina mountains, they are also celebrating the birth of another lamb.

To date, three lambs have been spotted in the mountains.

Game and Fish officials said they were unable to track the mountain lion that killed the sheep, as some time had passed, and the trail had gone cold.

The group Friends of Wild Animals formed after two mountain lions were killed for attacking the sheep.

Since November, 12 sheep have died most of them eaten by predators like mountain lions.  Now those against the re-introduction program are concerned about how Game and Fish officials are hoping to track the remaining sheep in the mountains.

Mark Hart, a spokesman for the Arizona Game & Fish office in Tucson said they had applied for a permit to fly helicopters over the Pusch Ridge mountains last April.

Protesters said that was a violation of the Wilderness Act, although if officials are able to get the permit, they would be exempt from following the act.

"There can be no mechanized activity in the wilderness per federal law, unless we can secure the permit.  If in the course of doing helicopter monitoring of Bighorn Sheep we cross into the wilderness, we need that permit to do so legally," said Hart.

AZGFD re-located 31 Bighorn sheep from the Yuma area into the Catalinas last November.  Protesters say, since that time the Bighorn sheep have failed to unite to form a herd, and over a third of them have died.

Protesters stood with signs outside the Federal Building on Thursday afternoon, asking forest service officials to deny this request.  Friends of Wild Animals members said helicopters would create a major disturbance to wildlife, with noise levels louder than jackhammers.

"Helicopters are a major disruption to our wilderness and wildlife," said Friends of Wildlife member Ben Pachano.

"Helicopters we know have a significant impact on the area and our landscape, and the quality of life for wildlife and recreation in that area," said Amy Harwood, with Friends of Wild Animals.

"We just want them to stop this program immediately," added Harwood.

Hart said there were several reasons they needed this permit.

"The sheep tend to seek typically the most rugged and steep territory they can get into.  Sometimes in case of checking a mortality alert in these areas, sometimes can only be accessible by air," said Hart.

Hart said the helicopters would also enable officials to verify sheep deaths faster, and it would help officials transfer out GPS equipment on the sheep collars, if they needed.

Due to the steep and rugged terrain, wildlife officials admitted they had trouble picking up GPS signals off the collars.  They were using VHF signals to monitor the sheep, but that was a slower process.

Game and Fish officials said they had been unable to kill any more predators that killed the sheep due to the long amount of time that had passed between the death, and the discovery of the carcass.  Hart said by the time a wildlife officer got to the scene of the death, the remains were too old and the trail had gone cold.  In some cases, overnight rain wiped out the lion tracks, making it difficult to be sure which lion had attacked the sheep.

Advocates with Friends of Wild Animals said it was clear the program was a failure and needed to be stopped immediately.

Those on the Big Horn Sheep advisory board have acknowledged that failure could be an option, but they wanted to do everything possible to ensure a successful re-introduction.

About 30 more sheep are expected to be re-introduced into the Catalinas this Fall, another 30 next year.

Trail restrictions are still in place at various trail heads to protect the pregnant sheep and the lambs. 

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