Request to track Bighorn sheep with helicopters drawing protest

As Game and Fish officials digest the loss of the 12th Bighornsheep in the Catalina mountains, they are also celebrating the birth of anotherlamb.

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

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

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

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

Mark Hart, a spokesman for the Arizona Game & Fish office in Tucsonsaid they had applied for a permit to fly helicopters over the Pusch Ridgemountains 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 fromfollowing the act.

"There can be no mechanized activity in the wilderness perfederal law, unless we can secure the permit.  If in the course of doinghelicopter monitoring of Bighorn Sheep we cross into the wilderness, we needthat permit to do so legally," said Hart.

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

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

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

"Helicopters we know have a significant impact on the areaand our landscape, and the quality of life for wildlife and recreation in thatarea," 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 steepterritory they can get into.  Sometimes in case of checking a mortalityalert in these areas, sometimes can only be accessible by air," said Hart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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