The Bighorn’s Dilemma

By Melissa L. Sevigny

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How environmentalists, sportsmen, and Arizona officials put aside their differences for the benefit of a mountain.

The project began inauspiciously enough. Hooves rattled against the trailer as, one by one, bighorn sheep leapt from their transport onto the hard-packed desert ground and bounded away. Onlookers took video and snapped pictures on their cell phones. It was over in a handful of heartbeats. The Santa Catalina Mountains rose in beige, brown, and violet shades, not a cloud in the clear Arizona sky to portend ominous events on the horizon.

Map of Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area in relation to Tucson.
Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area, in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona. Click on map to access interactive wilderness area map.
Map courtesy

On November 18, 2013, the Arizona Game and Fish Department released 31 bighorn sheep into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area near Tucson. The restoration effort is not unusual. The agency has reintroduced about 2,000 bighorn sheep to mountain ranges around the state since 1958.

What is unusual is that, for the first time, Arizona Game and Fish partnered with environmental groups to create a public process for managing wildlife. The advisory board spent a year negotiating delicate compromises before reaching consensus on a plan to return bighorn sheep to the Catalinas.

At stake is not only the survival of the bighorn, but the longevity of a new-sprung attitude of cooperation that could replace Arizona’s famously contentious approaches toward wildlife management. It’s a visionary experiment with no guarantee of success, and could either become a model for collaborative restoration efforts across the American West or a cautionary tale of failure. Like the fate of the bighorn, the jury is still out.

The Last Catalina Bighorn

Desert bighorn sheep live vertical lives. Grey to beige to chocolate brown, with pale rumps and underbellies, the sheep propel themselves up inhospitable cliffs with heavily muscled hindquarters. Ewes and rams both bear the characteristic curved horns, but only the rams have the fully curled, 30-pound headgear that make them a popular image for sports teams and truck grills.

Bighorn thrived in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson until the mid-1990s. Their demise stemmed from a Gordian knot of factors impossible to unravel. At the center of the mystery stands the pressure of human encroachment onto sheep habitat, visible at a glance in the Catalina foothills where houses cut into the mountainside.

Bighorn herds scattered across southern Arizona once bolstered one another with a fresh flow of genes. Houses, freeways, and canals now fracture wildlife habitat, stemming this exchange. Other, more invisible types of pressure arrived with people, including the introduction of domestic sheep diseases and the stress inflicted on pregnant ewes by the presence of hikers with dogs.

Human encroachment also brought about a policy of fire suppression. Lightning-sparked fires once regularly cleared out undergrowth, thinned forests, and returned nutrients to the soil in the Catalinas, but for most of the 20th century the U.S. Forest Service waged war on wildfires. Suppression efforts rearranged bighorn sheep habitat into thicker shrubs—meaning good cover for mountain lions, which might have found more success than usual in capturing a mutton dinner.

In 1995, biologists found only three sheep in the Catalinas. In 1996, none. Paul Krausman, then a University of Arizona biologist, warned that any reintroduction effort that did not address the tangle of habitat disturbances was doomed to failure.

“The decline of the desert bighorn sheep in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness is a surprise to no one,” Krausman reported at a Tucson conference. “Unfortunately, now that the population is nearly eliminated, managers will have to decide if Pusch Ridge Wilderness is suitable for the continued habitat for bighorn sheep and if not what modifications need to be made to make it suitable. The other decision would be to do nothing and accept the decline of the herd as human-induced.”

The Right Time to Act

Those options still faced the Arizona Game and Fish Department a decade later: do nothing, or take action. In 2007, a wildlife manager named Martin Guerena told his supervisor he wanted to put bighorn back on Pusch Ridge. Several things had changed that could give the new herd a fighting chance. First, sheep diseases were now unlikely. Second, the U.S. Forest Service had banned dogs from the bighorn sheep management area on Pusch Ridge and prohibited hikers from wandering more than 300 feet off designated trails during the lambing season, January to April.

That policy began in 1996, too late to help the original herd. “We have kept those restrictions in place, even though we haven’t seen sheep for 17 years,” said Stan Helin, the Catalina district ranger. “I knew that if we ever relinquished the restrictions, we’d never get them back.” He held on to “the vestige of a hope” that someday bighorn would climb Pusch Ridge again.  

Lastly, the Bullock and Aspen fires burned large tracts of the Catalinas in 2002 and 2003. Catastrophic at the time, the fires reopened the shrub-choked habitat into something resembling its former health.

Bighorn herd
A wild, protected desert bighorn herd.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.

In 2013, Arizona Game and Fish deemed populations of bighorn sheep in other parts of the state healthy enough to withstand a translocation. “It seemed like the right time to do it,” Guerena said. “We had a regional priority of mountain ranges, and the Catalinas were next on the list. So we gave it a shot.”

Arizona Game and Fish was no stranger to translocations. The agency had spent 18 years establishing bighorn in Aravaipa Canyon, an effort than began in 1958 and culminated in a healthy herd of more than 100 animals. Successful reintroductions followed in the Superstitions, Mazatzals, and Minerals—in fact, in every mountain range rated for quality bighorn habitat except the Catalinas.

The Catalinas presented a special case. Past reintroduction efforts took place in remote areas of Arizona, where few people noticed or cared. Proximity to Tucson meant scrutiny from an environmentally minded community of more than a million people. Arizona Game and Fish faced a mistrustful public, still stinging from controversies over the lethal removal of mountain lions in Sabino Canyon and the death of the jaguar Macho B. If they killed mountain lions to protect bighorn sheep—as they typically did during reintroductions—they risked deepening those patterns of outrage and distrust.

Ben Brochu, Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife manager, said this “human dimension” gave the agency motivation to try a different approach. “You can have all the science in the world to manage wildlife, but that’s not going to make a difference unless you develop a public process,” he said.

Arizona Game and Fish had never worked cooperatively with environmental groups before. They needed someone to help them make the connection, and found Brian Dolan of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, a nonprofit organization that represents sportsmen. The Society had advocated for the return of sheep to the Catalinas since the demise of the original herd. They wanted the U.S. Forest Service to institute a management scheme of prescribed burns to help restore the habitat—and Dolan knew he’d need the help of environmentalists to make that happen.

“I went and asked a coalition of environmental groups in Tucson: Was it possible they’d be willing to work together to try to get sheep on the mountain?” said Dolan. “There was lots of suspicion there. Environmentalists and sportsmen have traditionally not gotten along.”

The invitation put environmental groups on the proverbial horns of a dilemma. If they joined the effort, they risked alienating their own supporters, who distrusted the Arizona Game and Fish Department and its perceived focus on big game species. If they declined, they would likely have little or no impact on the department’s policies and plans for the reintroduction.

They opted in. The possibility of failure—both of the newly collaborative process and of the bighorn reintroduction—loomed large at the outset. As it turned out, much hinged on the mountain lions.

Lions or Lambs?

Pursch Ridge Wilderness Area
The rugged Pusch Ridge, viewed from the southern face of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Photo by c.miles, courtesy photopin cc.
Under normal conditions, mountain lions pose little threat to a bighorn herd. The sheep’s habit of seeking out rough, vertical terrain keeps all but the most unlucky safe from predators. Ewes and rams, living in separate herds for most of the year, protect their companions with pooled vigilance.

In a small herd, however—like the 24 ewes and seven rams translocated to Pusch Ridge in November 2013—losses move from unfortunate to catastrophic. A single death represents a significant fraction of the population, and a lion that has developed a taste for sheep might kill one a week.

How to handle this problem became the subject of the longest and most intense discussions at advisory board meetings in the year preceding the bighorn sheep release. Lines were quickly drawn: on one side, Sky Island Alliance, the Arizona Wilderness CoalitionWilderness Society, and Center for Biological Diversity, more inclined (at varying levels) to protect wilderness for its own sake; on the other, the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, sportsmen, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, more inclined (at varying levels) to protect wilderness for its value to humans.

The philosophical differences mattered, because it meant a fundamental split in attitudes about human interference in the natural world. Sergio Avila, a biologist at Sky Island Alliance, said, “When my organization was first approached to join the committee, I was extremely vocal and adamant that we would not be a part of this project. I don’t like that we scoop animals from one place and put them somewhere else, especially if it’s done by special interests.”

Joining the advisory board meant a chance to influence the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s approach to wildlife management—including its no-tolerance policy toward predators.

Mountain lions can’t be captured and relocated. As territorial animals with shrinking habitat, they would only end up killing each other. Arizona Game and Fish usually hires a houndsman to kill mountain lions in advance of a bighorn reintroduction, a method called “pre-treat,” or would temporarily raise the bag limit for sportsmen. (In Arizona, a hunter can normally take one male mountain lion per year).

Elusive and shy, mountain lions defy attempts to make an accurate population count, but hunters in the unit containing the Catalina Mountains bagged 22 lions in 2012, no small feat for an animal so difficult to track and corner. Sportsmen on the advisory board claimed that you could entirely clear the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area of mountain lions without any threat to the species.  

The environmental groups adamantly opposed these indiscriminate methods. They served local and national constituencies enthusiastic about protecting big cats. More than any other issue on the table, predator management threatened to splinter the collaborative process.

“Most of us didn’t know each other,” said Trica Hawkins, a biologist and educator with the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “It was the first time that environmental organizations were invited to the table like that. I’m sure there were moments when we all said, ‘I can’t see this working.’”

The advisory board members spent the first few meetings simply laying out their fears and hopes for the project. Hawkins remembers Arizona Game and Fish’s willingness to share information as a critical step toward cooperation. “We were given the nuts and bolts of the possibilities early on,” she said. “It showed a lot of trust on the part of the Game and Fish Department toward our organizations.”

Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists, likewise, appreciated the advisors’ desire to understand the issues and avoid snap judgments. “They’re eager to learn,” said Guerena. “They wanted all the information on bighorn sheep possible. They didn’t just take it home and put it on a shelf. They read it and understood it and came back to the meetings. It really meant something to them.”    

Desert bighorn ewes.
Desert bighorn ewes.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.

Science supported the idea of a more discriminate predator management plan. Mountain lions do not always develop a liking for bighorn. Thousands of mule deer, whitetails, and javelinas roam the Catalinas, giving lions plenty to eat. A lion that preferred to feast on bighorn could decimate the small herd. On the other hand, a lion that chose to dine elsewhere could step into the unlikely role of protector, keeping other cats away from its territory like a toothy sheepdog.

Gradually the groups came to a decision. Specific mountain lions would be pursued and killed only after they fed upon a bighorn sheep. Females with kittens and solitary kittens would be left alone. Pursuits would be discontinued after five days, when the scent had gone cold and there was little chance of locating the right lion. The plan was temporary—in place only until the bighorn sheep had reached healthy and sustainable numbers—and changeable as the need arose.

In addition, sport hunters with dogs would be banned from the Pusch Ridge area. That decision actually made it possible that fewer mountain lions would die in the Catalinas than usual—hunters rarely find a lion without a dog’s nose to guide them—but it seemed only fair, since hikers with dogs had already been prohibited to lessen the stress on the sheep.

All agreed upon an overarching vision for the project: a healthy population of both bighorn sheep and mountain lions, coexisting in the Catalinas as they had done for thousands of years.

It was a unique and pricey arrangement, compared to the predator management techniques Arizona Game and Fish had used in the past. It required GPS collars on every sheep, and meant hiring a houndsman for the tricky work of pursuing specific mountain lions.

Most of all, it meant the department had to sacrifice its streamlined, tried-and-tested reintroduction methods in favor of a process messier, more complex, and highly visible to the public. The agency thought it was a worthy tradeoff. “This was an opportunity to take an adversarial relationship and make it into a partnership,” said Joe Sacco, Arizona Game and Fish Department’s field supervisor in Tucson.

By the time November 2013 rolled around, and helicopters snagged the first bighorn sheep from mountain ranges near Yuma for transport to Tucson, the members of the advisory board had built a fragile sense of camaraderie. “A lot of people on the committee I truly trust, and we can be as honest and forthright as we need to be,” said Brochu. “That’s good, and something that’s never happened before. We can confront the realities on the ground.”  

Under Fire

Bighorn sheep in helicopter
A desert bighorn sheep captured near Yuma, Arizona, is relocated to the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Photo courtesy Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The realities on the ground turned out to be more difficult than anyone had thought possible.

The first bighorn loss to a mountain lion, on November 30, came as no surprise. The mountain lion stalked the wildlife manager who was sent to investigate. He shot it on the scene, fearing for his safety. Afterward, he found the body of the yearling ewe cached in a small ravine. An examination of the lion’s stomach contents confirmed it had fed on the bighorn.

The following day, another mortality signal from a GPS collar led to the body of an adult ewe with an unborn lamb. The mountain lion that had fed on her was tracked and killed.

The public’s response was venomous. A protestor group formed to derail the reintroduction, picketing and posting angry signs at the trailhead. The political cartoonist for the Arizona Daily Star thanked the Arizona Game and Fish Department, on behalf of the mountain lions, for the “new food delivery service to our area.” Opponents accused the project of “punishing” lions for acting according to their instincts.

The advisory board had publicized their intentions. Mark Hart, Arizona Game and Fish public information officer, said that the Arizona Daily Star carried the story on the front page six times in 2013. The committee held three public meetings (poorly attended) prior to the release of the bighorn.

“We went out of the way to make sure the public knew what we were up to,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity. “People tend to not pay attention to something like that until there’s a dead lion. Then everybody is keenly interested.”

Arizona Game and Fish bore the brunt—including veiled and not-so-veiled death threats—but the environmental groups who had worked so hard to form a science-based collaboration also felt the backlash. The Center for Biological Diversity, only a few years earlier, had sued the agency over the death of Macho B. Now, their effort to take a more cooperative approach was receiving a trial by fire.

“We’re getting attacked by erstwhile allies for even partnering with the Game and Fish in the first place,” said Serraglio. “It’s really discouraging. People say we’ve sold out and betrayed our principles. We’re doing this for the same reasons that they’re out there protesting with signs. We want to see projects like this done with more respect for the predators.”

The project’s funding quickly became a point of contention in the press. The estimated $600,000 required for the three-year reintroduction came from private donors (including the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and other sportsmen’s groups), excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, and proceeds from the sales of licenses and tags.

Opponents pointed to the funding as a sign that the project had only hunters’ interests at heart. It was true that the agency’s close relationship to sportsmen had worried environmentalists joining the advisory board—but not because of the possibility of hunting the Catalina bighorn.  

“I can remember getting away on the weekends from school and hiking in the Catalinas and watching the bighorn sheep,” said Brian Ham, the sportsmen representative on the committee. “It was the absolute thrill of my week to watch the bighorns banging horns or climbing on the rocks. When I climbed that mountain 30 years ago, it had sheep in it. Now to see it without sheep is disappointing for me. Yes, I’m a hunter. But I don’t ever plan on hunting Arizona desert bighorn sheep—you get one tag in your lifetime, and I’ve had mine. So my motivation isn’t someday hunting them. It’s getting them back on that mountain because that’s where they belong.”

Catalina bighorn sheep in 1977.
Desert bighorn sheep in Dead Horse Canyon, Santa Catalina Mountains, 1977.
Photo Joe Sheehey, courtesy Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee.

The environmental groups worried, rather, that Arizona Game and Fish had adopted a cavalier attitude toward predators and a tendency to over-manage wildlife. Their participation in the project, they hoped, would quietly guide the department toward understanding how environmentalists thought about wilderness. They appreciated that the agency had offered them a seat at the table, despite the fact their budgets were too slim to contribute financially to the project.

That nuance was largely lost on the media. The advisory board clamped down on the uncontrolled release of information, moving to twice-monthly press releases to give Arizona Game and Fish time to check up on unreliable data from GPS collars, and to give the members of the nonprofit groups time to shape the language and provide context. Journalists under deadline filled the gap with quotes from protestors, who labeled the project as secretive.

“It was somewhat laughable because this whole project and process had been the opposite, trying to be more open and transparent,” said Brochu.

Though not reported in the press, Arizona Game and Fish also received angry calls from people at the other end of the spectrum: sportsmen who wanted to kill lions to help the sheep and were displeased by the new hunting restrictions as well as citizens who wondered why the department didn’t simply wipe out the predators in advance of the reintroduction.

“Our participation has taken some of those other activities off the table,” said Mike Quigley of the Wilderness Society. “This is the middle ground, which is very uncomfortable to be in.”

Joe Sheehey of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society put it another way: “Sometimes you feel like we’re going to take our licks no matter what we do.”

For the Benefit of the Mountain

Sixteen sheep had died by March 16, 2014, including five of the rams. Fourteen of those had been killed by mountain lions, a high predation rate that prompted Brochu to call the Catalina herd “the unluckiest sheep ever.” The rapidity of the herd’s demise might have resulted from the inexperience of the bighorn sheep, still trying to learn the new terrain. Some of the sheep had scattered, instead of bunching up for protection, and wandered into poor habitat with little visibility.

Going into the project, Sacco said, “We were very optimistic and perhaps we were naïve, because we felt that we would have more success in removing the targeted lions.” The GPS collars, meant to provide continuous on-the-ground data, malfunctioned about half the time, sending false mortality signals or delaying uplink of data. Dry weather hindered hunting dogs from picking up the scent, and the terrain was difficult to navigate, making lions hard to find within the five-day cutoff.

In late February, Arizona Game and Fish altered the management plan to apply to a smaller area, an effort to refocus their limited resources. In early March they killed a third mountain lion. The unforeseen difficulties with removing sheep-eating lions did little to soothe the ruffled feelings of the public, and probably diminished the herd’s chance of success.

Hawkins honored the department for making a difficult tradeoff when they agreed to a selective predator management plan. Had the agency chosen not to work with environmental groups, she said, they likely would have proceeded with the Catalina project with a much more stringent attitude toward predators. The result may have sunk them even lower in the public’s esteem, but Hawkins admitted that it also may have saved more of the bighorn sheep.

Mountain lion
Of the 16 bighorn sheep that have died since relocation, 14 were killed by mountain lions. Three lions have been removed from the area.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.

The compromise showed, Hawkins said, their commitment to a public process—and made accusations from outsiders even more distressing.

“It’s a knife in my gut when I go to a meeting and we’ve got the photos of the stomach analysis of that lion or the remains of that bighorn sheep,” said Hawkins. “I feel personally responsible for the deaths of the animals. I voted yes to kill that lion. I supported putting that bighorn sheep there. It’s personal and it hurts. But I clench my teeth and look at the big picture and hope for the restoration of a species, and not at the price of another species.”

As a biologist, Hawkins thinks on the scale of ecosystems. The advisory board agreed to sacrifice some mountain lions and some bighorn sheep for the chance that both species would thrive. Protestors, organized under a grassroots group called Friends of Wild Animals, tended to eschew this broader perspective in favor of the moral rights of individual animals.

Some members of the committee agreed with the protestors in principle—like Avila, who said that Tucsonans hadn’t understood the difficult compromise in play.

“We are having a tough conversation inside,” Avila said. “Standing outside holding masks and signs doesn’t do anything except put you in the media. We do carry the voice of the people protesting outside, we do carry their principles, but groups like this simply like to ask. They don’t like to give. Sitting at the table is giving: we are giving our time, our energy, our health.”

Advisory board members felt the strain in their personal lives. They worked on the project as volunteers, in addition to their full-time jobs. They took home the voluminous reports and scientific papers; they fielded questions from reporters; they suffered sleepless nights. Motivations to drop out of the process grew. “I don’t think [Arizona Game and Fish] expected us to last this long,” Avila admitted. “We’ve been about to walk from the committee many times, but we stick to it.”

Helin, the U.S. Forest Service representative, recalled instances when the collaborative process seemed about to collapse. “They would start shouting at each other or get up and leave the table—but they didn’t leave the parking lot, and that mattered,” he said. “I can tell you that they learned to trust each other. They learned to take risks as a group together. In some ways, they can only trust each other”—because their own constituencies are threatening to abandon them.

The environmental groups found an unlikely ally in the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. Dolan defended their position on the mountain lions despite the high sheep losses. Everyone had a larger goal in mind, one that could stand or fall independent of the fate of the Catalina herd: to develop a holistic public process to protect ecosystem health, with fire returned to its rightful role, connections between mountain ranges restored, and predators and prey in balance.

Achieving that goal with litigation and protest—the well-worn tools of the environmentalist—seemed doubtful. Dolan argued that continual conflict had turned agencies like the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Forest Service into “big bureaucracies in a perpetual planning cycle.”

If protestors derailed the project, they’d likely hurt their own cause by freeing Arizona Game and Fish to pursue its usual predator management protocols, albeit in places far from Tucson. To the members of the committee, collaboration seemed the only way forward—as Avila put it, not just for the bighorn sheep and the mountain lions, but “for the benefit of the mountain.”

New Lambs, New Hope

A glimpse of a newborn bighorn sheep cannot fail to elicit a smile. They have all the charm of grey-fuzzed, wooly lambs of Bo Peep fame, with the advantage of legs on springs. They stick close to their dams in the first few weeks of life and then form rambunctious nurseries, bouncing like popcorn in play that mimics the serious adult work of feeding, fleeing, and finding mates.

In February, the Arizona Game and Fish Department sent an intern into Pusch Ridge to investigate a mortality signal. The ewe in question hadn’t moved for 10 hours. It was backbreaking work, clambering through the boulders with the spine-tingling knowledge of mountain lions nearby. The intern found the ewe. She was alive, healthy—and had a newborn lamb.

At least five lambs have been born on Pusch Ridge. They are Catalina sheep, making a home on the mountain for the first time in almost two decades. If they survive, they will pass to their own offspring a genetic knowledge of the landscape that will help them avoid predators, find forage and thrive.

The lambs don’t save the project from the very real threat of failure, however. Arizona Game and Fish planned for a slow release of bighorn to avoid putting a strain on the source populations. If the agency decides to continue, they will release another 30 bighorn this November, and 30 more in 2015. The plan is adaptive—meaning that the agency could return to its no-tolerance predator policy to protect the new sheep, or could scrap the project entirely. Different members of the advisory board have voiced opinions in favor of both options, and for everything in between.

Yet the committee members agree they’ve achieved unprecedented success of a kind. The challenges encountered could have easily degraded the collaborative process into blame and accusation. It did not. Universally, they stood by the new relationships they had forged.  

“It’s been surprisingly good,” said Sacco. “It’s one of those things where you start out thinking, how’s this ever going to work? We found a way to make it work. That’s not to say there weren’t some rough times, but the outcome has been outstanding.”

“It’s a whole new approach that’s pretty groundbreaking in my opinion,” Hawkins agreed. “It’s been tremendous to see the agency respond to our needs and respectfully alter policy.”

Even if the project fails, the collaborative process could stand as a model for a new kind of wildlife management across the West. It presents an opportunity for citizens to engage in conversation about what relationship we want to hold toward other species.

Satellite image showing ewes with lambs at Catalina State Park.
GPS location of five ewes with lambs mapped over a month in spring 2014 at Catalina State Park on the north slope of the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Graphic courtesy Friends of Santa Catalina Bighorn Sheep.

Bighorn sheep once thrived in the mountains surrounding Tucson—the Tortolitas, Picacho, Tucsons, and Rincons—but those populations are now extinct and nearly forgotten. To the options presented by Krausman in the 1990s—do nothing, or take action—the members of the advisory board answered definitively in favor of action. The question of what type of action remains. Intensive management favored by state agencies leaves sheep collared and cornered, robbed of wildness, while an entirely hands-off approach risks their elimination.

This is the core of the controversy: How much should humans “meddle” with the natural world in the name of wildlife management?

The widespread and sometimes invisible effects of human presence—from suppressed fires to introduced diseases to habitat fragmentation—make it impossible to “let nature take its course,” said Guerena. “If we didn’t manage wildlife, we wouldn’t have bighorn sheep in the state right now, period. Humans are to blame for human encroachment. At some point, you have to do something.”

Serraglio agreed that some level of wildlife management is necessary. “The entire planet is a laboratory. Take the Catalinas: we’ve been suppressing fires for decades now, completely changing the ecology of that mountain range; we’ve built our homes up the sides of the hills, reducing habitat and cutting off connectivity; we’ve used it heavily for recreation, taking our RVs and dogs in there.

It’s too late to say leave the animals alone. I think that not only is this project worth pursuing, it’s our responsibility as modern humans to try to fix the damage we’ve caused.”

On the other hand, said Avila, it’s important to choose restoration projects wisely. Next time, he hopes Arizona Game and Fish will invite environmental groups to join the process from the start—not after making the decision to reintroduce a particular species to a particular place. That will allow them to shape priorities, deciding whether to focus on an extirpated species or a species making a comeback.

Fire is a critical part of this conversation, too. The U.S. Forest Service has undertaken a laborious process called “FireScape” to plan for prescribed burns in Catalinas and other Arizona mountain ranges. Before burning, officials have to complete time-consuming environmental analyses, secure funding, and wait for the right conditions. They prioritize treating areas close to people, to protect residents and the thousands of kids that attend summer camps in the Catalinas.

Helin explained that even if the Forest Service could develop a definitive plan for burning Pusch Ridge, the rugged area won’t easily burn. “Everybody thinks you light a match and it does this wonderful, easy, beautiful thing,” he said. “Sometimes the oaks just will not light, and a week later they explode into fireballs, and a week after that they won’t light again. The vegetation patterns of the bighorn sheep area on Pusch Ridge are so volatile. We call them toggle fuels because we don’t know which way the toggle switch is going to go.”

Quigley said that “a beautiful outcome” of the bighorn sheep reintroduction would be if Tucsonans gain a deeper understanding of the beneficial role of fire. The myriad changes wrought unwittingly by residents all weigh against the success of reintroduction efforts. The Catalina herd has a chance to thrive only if the sheep learn to live in human-altered conditions—what Helin called the “poodle- and golden-retriever-conditions”—and only if people learn to make room for the sheep.

First lamb, with ewe
The first of the lambs born after reintroduction, shown here with the mother, was photographed in January 2014. Click to view more lamb photos.
Photo courtesy Friends of Santa Catalina Bighorn Sheep.

A more holistic approach to reintroductions will require public approval and understanding. The Tucson experience proves that this type of social capital isn’t easy to earn.

The process developed by the Tucson coalition, which Helin called “adaptive collaborative management,” suggests a way to engage the public in this conversation and search out “middle-ground” solutions based on science and intended to benefit ecosystems rather than single species. “This has had a profound impact on me,” Helin said. “I’m willing to trust that other constituencies can come to the table and not scream and shout at each other, and actually come to a collaborative solution.” He’s already adopting the process to shape the U.S. Forest Service’s management plans for Redington Pass, an area heavily used for recreation east of Tucson.

The longevity of this new attitude of collaboration in Arizona and other parts of the West is far from guaranteed. It will depend on “everybody being able to adapt and move to a new position when it gets challenging,” said Ham. “We’re in one of those places right now. If everybody can prove they can move from the stance they started with, this process has a chance to work.”

In the best-case scenario, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and people will find a way to coexist in the Catalinas in the coming decade. In the worst, the process itself will fail, and collaboration again will fall out of favor as a method for protecting and restoring public lands.

The latter scenario isn’t likely, say the members of the advisory board. They already count their experiment in cooperation as a success. “It’s definitely too soon to tell if the sheep reintroduction will take, or if the larger ecosystem restoration goals will be achieved,” said Quigley, “but it’s not too soon to tell that a more inclusive, collaboration process is the better way.”



Melissa L. Sevigny is a poet and writer from Tucson, Arizona. She has a degree in environmental science from the University of Arizona and an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, was published in 2016 by the University of Iowa Press.
Read additional work by Melissa appearing in “On the Trail of Mountain Lions” and “The Thirsty Tree: Confronting Invasive Salt Cedar in the American Southwest”.

Header photo, young desert bighorn ram at Zion National Park in southern Utah, by Simmons B. Buntin.

  1. I’m disappointed that although this article alluded several times to opposition to this project and even linked to the Facebook page for Friends of Wild Animals, it seems the author made no attempt to contact Friends of Wild Animals in order to accurately represent our opinions. Instead, this article reports blatantly false nonsense, such as that we “tended to eschew this broader perspective in favor of the moral rights of individual animals.” On the contrary, many of our critiques of this project have been ecologically and scientifically grounded and are simply not mentioned here (e.g. concerns over the lack of a habitat improvement or fire management plan, long-term predator suppression, disruption to wilderness).

    Also, using Game & Fish pages as links for the Sabino Canyon and Macho B scandals hardly gives an unbiased picture of what happened in those instances (“death of” Macho B? The agency deliberately euthanized the last known–at that time–jaguar in the USA). Was it too hard to find an Arizona Daily Star article to link to for those stories?

    The author seems to have sacrificed journalistic rigor for a feel-good story depending heavily on quotes from people on the same side of the issue.

    1. Excellent analysis and commentary, Mr. Pachano.

      Here are two links to guest columns in the Arizona Daily Star about the Catalina Bighorn Sheep debacle:

      The relocation of bighorn sheep to the Catalina Mtns would not happen, if bighorn sheep were not a big game species. A hunting club, the Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, has members on the AZ Game & Fish Commission. That taints the decision making process with a political bias that negates scientific objectivity. The impetus for netting bighorn sheep out of familiar habitat and dumping those disoriented creatures into unfamiliar country is hunting.

      At what cost does this debacle proceed? How many sheep have to die? So far, sixteen are dead. How many mountain lions? The misrepresentation about only three mountain lions being killed due to the Catalina Bighorn Project ignores the total number of lions killed in Unit 33, which includes the Rincons and Catalinas. In 2012 there were over 20 lions killed in Unit 33. I haven’t seen the 2013 total or the 2014 year-to-date tally. Nearby, in the Aravaipa Canyon area, over 40 lions were killed during a three year period to bolster the bighorn sheep herd there. Multiple lion bag limits were imposed on this keystone predator at the request of the Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, in spite of field data (science) that demonstrated low lion predation on sheep in the Aravaipa Canyon district.

      Melissa Sevigny’s lack of objectivity indicts her as a grossly biased scribbler. The Catalina Bighorn Sheep Project is unlikely to succeed. It appears that all it will accomplish is the torture and death of dozens of animals in a futile project catering to the favorite Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.

    2. A point of clarification: The links within the text itself were chosen and inserted by editorial staff. We appreciate the additional links included in replies, as well.

      1. Thanks for the clarification, and sorry for the unfair accusation directed at the author regarding the links. Nevertheless, the reliance on Game & Fish public relations statements rather than on third party coverage was still a mistake on the part of staff.

  2. Noted in the article the mention of the sheep not all staying together in one herd. Did Game and Fish take all of them from the same herd in one area, or from several herd in the same area? If it is possible for them to remove an entire small herd for relocation from an area well populated with sheep, without causing harm to the ecosystem from which the herd is taken, would this encourage the sheep to remain together after relocation, thus hopefully providing them with more security against predators? I’m more familiar with horses, and cattle to a lesser extent, but by removing the necessity for the sheep to form an entirely new herd comprised of individuals from different herds, and relocating an existing small herd in its entirety, fewer sheep may be lost to predation. Anyone ever bring that idea up in the meetings? If yes, what were the pros and cons listed, and the reasoning behind each? If no, would this be helpful for choosing sheep for reintroduction, and what, in the experience of scientists involved in relocation efforts, would it be likely to contribute to the success of the reintroduction program? I like neither the idea of killing mountain lions nor of having bighorn sheep extinct forever on Pusch Ridge. I also do not want to see the bighorns die off in a few more decades because the herd’s foundation stock was too closely related, and inbreeding made them susceptible to disease, genetic defects, etc. Is it possible to remove enough sheep in one herd at a specific location to meet the number needed for reintroduction in 2014, and from another suitable place with enough “extra” sheep in the third year, without upsetting the ecological balance in the locations from which the sheep were captured?

  3. Well, since all comments so far as against the re-introduction, I thought I’d chip in on the pro side. First, neither mountain lions nor bighorn sheep are endangered, AZ has healthy populations of both. Second, I don’t buy the argument that we’re meddling too much. We (humans) have already reduced wild animal ranges too much, it’s far too late to back off. Some sort of wildlife management is required. AZ fish & game issue about 20 mountain lion kill licenses per year in the Catalinas, so killing 3 isn’t going to affect the overall population (although I don’t know whether the 3 counted against the total number of licenses issued this year). They have data on the kills (weight, sex, age etc) so can extrapolate to get the overall population health and decide how many licenses to issue in future.
    I liked Melissa’s point (perhaps her main point) that this reintroduction effort is an unprecedented cooperation between state, hunting, and environmental groups. I think AZ fish & game has made every effort to be open about the process, and acknowledge that this is a high risk experiment, but worth doing anyway. Much valuable knowledge has already been gained, and frankly I think the cost is worth it, both in dollars and animals lost. Finally, on the enmity towards hunting groups, I personally abhor hunting for pleasure and would never do it, but many people do and that is never going to change. Hunters have as much if not more incentive to keep their prey populations healthy and stable than do environmental groups. One must look beyond one’s own biases. You can certainly disagree with the project, but no-one will know its success for quite a while. I suppose it comes down to whether you trust the various groups involved.

  4. Dear Ms. Melissa and Terrain:
    Used this essay as one of the 4 choices for English comp students writing analysis papers. Over half of the students in the class chose this essay and their experience with it has been overwhelmingly positive. Assigning more Terrain in the future. Just wanted to let you know that the hard work of writers and editors is appreciated and valuable. Thanks!

  5. Melissa, I wanted to thank you for a very well written piece on this effort. In fact this is the best story I’ve seen written about the entire process. As a 30 year veteran biologist with the AZ Game and Fish Dept. I appreciate your accurate airing of the controversies, dilemmas and struggles associated with this restoration effort. As biologists managing wildlife populations as a public trust, it’s important for us to strike the appropriate balance between what’s good for populations as opposed to individuals within the population. Because Arizona no longer contains intact ecosystems in relation to large, wide-ranging vertebrates we must accept the notion of active management to sustain and restore our biological heritage. In the end it’s important for us to maintain our focus and do what’s right for the systems as a whole.

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