Game and Fish officials believe handful of lions responsible for Bighorn Sheep deaths

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Arizona Game and Fish Department has announced two more Bighorn sheep deaths in the Santa Catalina Mountains and that a mountain lion believed to be responsible for up to four sheep deaths was "administratively removed."

The deaths bring to 15 the total number of sheep deaths since 31 sheep were reintroduced in the area in November. Three lambs have been observed since the release.

According to the announcement, Game and Fish confirmed the death of a ewe on March 2 and a ram on March 4.

The 7- to 9-year-old mountain lion was tracked from the ewe's carcass and taken within a half mile of the kill site. The cause of the ram's death is under investigation.

Game and Fish officials in Tucson said the temporary predator management plan they were following was very conservative, compared to how it had been done in other mountain ranges, where bighorn sheep had been successfully re-introduced into the habitat.

In other areas such as  New Mexico, Game and Fish officials had "pre-treated" the areas, and "removed" predators like mountain lions before releasing the sheep.  They called it a clean sweep to give the sheep a better survival rate.

According to Game and Fish officials in New Mexico, the Bighorn sheep population was almost down to 70 back in 1980 was listed at 750 in 2012.  Officials attributed it to repeated releases over groups of sheep, combined with aggressive management of predators.

Mark Hart, a spokesman for the Game and Fish department office in Tucson said research had shown that all lions had a taste for Bighorn sheep.

"Not all mountain lions will take Bighorn sheep.  There is an abundance of Deer and Javelinas in the Santa Catalina's.  We fully expect most mountain lions to continue to consume that type of prey," said Hart.

Hart said they would continue to go after the lions that attacked sheep and added that Game and Fish officials believed a handful of lions had been responsible for all 15 sheep deaths, to date.

Gail Roper, a member of the advocacy group Friends of Wild Animals said she was distressed after hearing of the latest lion death. She literally heard it happen.

Roper said she had been jogging at Catalina State Park with her dog, early Monday morning when she heard the hound dogs she presumed were chasing the lion.

"I started to hear the baying and the barking of the hounds and I realized they were probably pursuing a mountain lion.  Less than ten minutes later, I hear them barking and baying and then I hear a single gunshot, and the hounds stopped," said Roper.

She said the re-introduction of the Bighorn sheep had been distressing for all the wildlife in the Catalina Mountains.

Shannon Miller, was also upset to hear about the latest mountain lion death.  "I am appalled.  You're bringing them lunch, then you're shooting them for eating lunch," said Miller.

Game and Fish officials said the temporary management of predators was a key component to ensure the success of the program.  Advisory board members behind the effort said, while they were disappointed about the number of sheep deaths, they were not ready to give up on the program just yet.

Another 30 Bighorn sheep are expected to be released into the Catalina Mountains in November.