TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Arizona Game and Fish officials have set new Bighorn sheep boundaries after 12 sheep were killed in a little over three months, most of them by mountain lions.
It is an approximately 100 square mile area in the Pusch Ridge wilderness, located between Oracle Road, Catalina Highway, Saddlebrook, and forest service land around Skyline Drive.
Game and Fish officials say all of the Bighorn sheep and the three lambs they had spotted were within these boundaries right now. The new plan called for pursuing and killing any lion that attacked a sheep within these boundaries.
Wildlife managers said this would allow them to focus all of their resources and efforts in one specific area, and that it was the best possible habitat for the sheep. Officials hoped the sheep stayed within the boundaries. "We are looking for those lions that prey on sheep only, not the ones that do not," said Joe Sacco, a wildlife management supervisor with the department.
"If the sheep is killed outside that area, we won't pursue the lion," added Sacco.
Protesters with Friends of Wild Animals have called the re-introduction program a failure, and asked Game and Fish officials to stop the program.
"We just think this is not working. It is clearly not succeeding," said Amy Harwood, a member of Friends of Wild Animals.
Those behind the effort, including members of the Catalina Bighorn Sheep Reintroduction Program advisory board members said they were not ready to give up yet.
Trica Oshant Hawkins, an advisory board member said while it had been disconcerting to see so many deaths so quickly, she was hopefully they could achieve success with the new boundaries established.
Game and Fish officials stressed they were only going after lions that attacked the sheep, because not all lions had a taste for sheep.
"We have seen some anecdotal evidence that they go after certain animals, for instance we have one that is collared and tracked, and it only eats coyotes," said Sacco.
Ben Pachano with Friends of Wild Animals said, lions were a predatory animal that would go after anything and should not be punished for displaying natural behavior.
To date Game and Fish officials had successfully killed two mountain lions that attacked sheep. Officials said they had attempted to pursue others, but due to challenges with the tracking collars, they had been unsuccessful in find the lions. In some cases, too much time had passed before they found the sheep carcass.
The latest dead Bighorn sheep was found in a drainage area surrounded by thick vegetation and steep cliffs. Officials determined it had been attacked by a mountain lion. They pursued the lion, but had to call off their pursuit for the night as the lion jumped up into steeper terrain and it was getting dark. In the morning, officials said they attempted to continue the pursuit, but had lost track of the lion by then.
"It's very rugged country, it's very difficult," said Sacco.
Oshant Hawkins pointed out that Bighorn sheep transplant efforts had been very successful in other parts of Arizona and Mexico, although it had taken some time, they were able to establish successful herds there.
Game and Fish officials pointed out the Predator Management Plan in those areas was a lot more aggressive than the one they were using in Tucson.
The areas were "pre-treated", which means 75% of the mountain lions were completely removed from the habitat, before the sheep were re-located there.
One area opened up mountain lion hunting, making it more liberal. This allowed hunters to bag more than one mountain lion in specific areas. Right now in the Tucson area, mountain lion hunters are limited to one bag per season.
Sacco said they had decided to try a more sensitive and conservative Predator Management plan in Tucson.
"We could determine we're unable to make this work, but right now it's too early for us to decide that," said Sacco.
WIldlife managers were encouraged to see that some of the sheep were gathering into herds. Officials said this would enable them to protect themselves against predators, because there were eyes and ears in the group.
Officials said this was an adaptive management plan, so it could change with time. The plan right now is to introduce 30 more Bighorn sheep into the Catalinas this fall, then another 30 next fall.
Officials released photos of the baby lambs spotted in the mountains on Friday. So far three lambs have been spotted. Trail restrictions are still in place to protect the pregnant sheep and the sensitive lambs.