The Return of Desert Bighorn Sheep to Arizona Mountaintops

Sheep hunters are some of the most passionate outdoorsmen and valuable conservationists in the world. As Vance Corigan says in a February 2017 New York Times article “people who pay $300,000 for one tag just paid to recover 30 sheep to places that haven’t had sheep in 100 years.”

 

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This year SCI Foundation and our partners at the Arizona Game and Fish Department intend to continue supporting that passion and embrace sheep chasers’ willingness to financially contribute to wild sheep conservation. Through a recent grant awarded by the Hunter Legacy Fund, we are excited to continue studying the successfully reintroduced desert bighorn sheep in the Santa Catalina Mountains and the impact of mountain lion predation on this growing population.
Perhaps one of the most sought-after species in the world, the extreme difficulty is simply locating one in parts of North America that haven’t seen them in 100 years. North American bighorns have been called “The Ultimate Pursuit in Hunting.” Those lucky enough to draw a tag after waiting, in some cases for more than a decade, find themselves in the seat of both a hunter and conservationist. Sheep tags can be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to a record $480,000, most of which goes to state or tribal fish and game departments. A single permit for a bighorn ram can constitute a large portion of a local conservation budget.

 

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Disease and unregulated hunting at the turn of the 20th century were devastating to Arizona’s bighorn sheep. Decades of human encroachment and fire suppression were barriers to sheep reintroduction. SCI Foundation partnered with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Wild Sheep Foundation in 2013 to establish a sustainable population of desert bighorn sheep in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, AZ. This project, near SCI headquarters, has returned the desert bighorn to yet another mountaintop. In just four years, three separate groups of thirty sheep were collared and released, and continue to be monitored today. As of November 2016, 85 individual desert bighorns roamed the Santa Catalinas and their numbers are still growing.

Big Horn Sheep

However, mountain lions remain a major threat to this new bighorn population. After the first sheep release, fourteen were killed by lions within months. The Adaptive Mountain Lion Management Plan, which allows removal of lions in the sheep reintroduction area, was extended to November 2017, and is currently being evaluated for its effectiveness in reducing predation on sheep. Limiting predation is key to maintaining population growth until the sheep can sustain natural lion pressure.

Bighron Sheep Sprint

Research and support will continue as SCI Foundation and our partners in Arizona remain proactive in managing what many expect to become the most valuable game species in the Southwest. According to the Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee, the public is supportive of bighorn sheep restoration and places significant worth on both their value to the local ecosystem and economy. The last year any desert bighorns were harvested in the Santa Catalina Mountains was 1992. However, if a viable population can be established as self-sustaining, the financial support from such valuable tags will guarantee the continued recovery of desert bighorn sheep.

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