Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Transplanting bighorn sheep to Pusch Ridge is cruel and futile

Another mountain lion was in the news last week, the latest one frightening a couple of hikers in Catalina State Park on the west side of Pusch Ridge.

Mountain lions are among the medium to large mammals in the Catalina Mountains who have adapted to human encroachment and presence in their habitat.

Among the others are deer, javelina, coyotes and bobcats, as anyone wealthy enough to live in the mountain foothills can tell you. Their adaptation to encroachment is both a blessing and a curse, depending on the experience (watching a family of deer nibble on your neighbor’s bushes is beautiful, watching them eat your freshly planted flowers and poop on your porch, no so much).

So far, mountain lions in the Catalinas are getting along well with their human neighbors. They have mostly only frightened people ignorant of their presence or of what to do when they’re encountered. There hasn’t been a documented human mountain lion attack in decades, though game officials killed one in 2008 that was acting aggressively, much to the consternation of the lion-loving public.

One of the large mammals that used to be in the Catalinas that didn’t get along very well with humans was the desert bighorn sheep.

The sheep population in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area dwindled rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s and died out in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

Now a coalition of state and federal game officials, environmentalists and hunters are embarking on a reintroduction of the species on Pusch Ridge.

That’s a bad idea.

Wildlife biologists are attributing the prime reason for the herd’s disappearance to the wildfire suppression and the buildup of vegetative cover for mountain lions, which is an ambush predator. A large wildfire in 2003 eliminated most of that vegetation.

Their studies admit human encroachment played a part in the decline but it’s played down as a primary reason (they also readily admit they’re not really sure why the bighorn population suddenly died off).

That smacks of environmental politics and wishful thinking more than sound conservation science. Bighorn sheep have shown repeatedly they don’t like people. When people move to where they are, the sheep leave or die out.

The sheep do not spend their entire lives on the cliffs. They find refuge there, but little to eat or drink. In times of drought or heavy snow, they move off the mountain into the valleys for short periods.

Pioneer records, especially those of the Pusch family, for which the craggy ridge jutting southwestward from the Catalinas is named, describe herds of bighorn sheep in the 1880s and 1890s foraging along the Canyon del Oro Wash. The CDO through Oro Valley is now a levee-lined flashflood catchment bordered by expensive homes and strip malls.

In the early 1980s, state Game and Fish officials estimated as many as a couple hundred sheep lived in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area, though that population was augmented from time to time with transplants from other Southern Arizona herds. If the vegetative cover theory is to be believed, there was a sudden burst of plant growth and mountain lions between 1980 and the late 1990s that devastated the herd.

Maybe. But what did grow rapidly in that time was the number of people living within a couple of miles of the forest boundary and Catalina State Park.

According to census records and using Google Earth to draw a two-mile line extending from the National Forest boundary and Catalina State Park, from Campbell Avenue around the ridge to Tangerine Road, nearly 100,000 people have moved into the foothills and CDO valley since 1970. It’s well over 100,000 if you draw the line up past Catalina and SaddleBrooke.

The ridge is bordered by Oracle Road, which in 1970 used have just a few thousand cars a day travel up and down its two lanes. Now, according to the 2009 traffic count by Pima Association of Governments, more than 55,000 cars travel six-lane Oracle Road each day.

Forty years ago, you could hike the two main Pusch Ridge Wilderness trails – Pima Canyon and Romero Pools – and rarely encounter another hiker. Today, both trails are hiker highways, especially on weekends.

Nearly 200,000 people a year visit Catalina State Park, a majority of them hikers embarking on the Romero trailhead.

There is no part of the Wilderness that isn’t crawling with humans and there is no way for the sheep to leave the mountain without passing through neighborhoods or shopping centers or crossing major thoroughfares.

It’s unlikely any wealthy foothills denizens will ever look out their picture windows and see a family of bighorn sheep nibbling their purple Texas rangers.

The effort to reintroduce the bighorn to Pusch Ridge is a desperate attempt to preserve the Wilderness Area designation more than a noble attempt to preserve the species and return it to its natural habitat.

The Forest Service established the Wilderness Area primarily to protect the bighorn, and there’s a special section of the area carved out for the bighorn with extra restrictions on its use, such as no dogs allowed. But it seemed pointless to maintain the designation without any bighorn. This effort appears to be a shameful effort to use the sheep for ulterior environmental motives.

The worst part of the plan is that if the mountain lions prove too wily for the sheep and start feasting on lamb dinners, the state will kill the mountain lions. That’s crazy and grossly unfair to the mountain lions.

The battle to save the sheep was lost decades ago. To transplant a herd of bighorn only to watch them struggle to survive and die is cruel and should be stopped before it’s started.

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