The reintroduction of bighorn sheep has united a rare mix of supporters, from ecologists to hunters to government officials. Likewise, a wide cross section of Tucsonans have voiced opposition, including hikers, environmentalists and residents from across the political spectrum.
While the project to move the animals from Yuma to Tucson stirred controversy from the beginning, tempers flared with the announcement the Arizona Game and Fish Department had killed two mountain lions for preying on bighorn sheep merely two weeks after their release.
Tucson resident Ben Pachano said it was the mountain lion killings that prompted him and several other concerned residents to form Friends of Wild Animals, a group dedicated to stopping the reintroduction of bighorns to the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Pachano works with about 14 other people on the Friends of Wild Animals’ organizing committee.
"We feel like game and fish is treating the Catalinas like a stock pond," he said. "They want to put in the species that they want and they want to remove the species that interferes with this population they’re trying to produce and to that goal they’re collaring the sheep for life and they’re killing mountain lions and they’re flying helicopters into wilderness. And that is not the type of attitude that we would like to see. We think that wild animals should be wild. And neither the bighorns nor the mountain lions are being given that respect."
However, Game and Fish said the reintroduction of bighorn sheep is intended to bring nature back into balance.
"Our department has a mission, just like any other department. And our mission is to restore native wildlife populations anywhere that we can," said Raul Vega, Region 5 supervisor of Game and Fish.
Vega said Game and Fish considers bighorn sheep deaths an unfortunate but inevitable part of the relocation program, and that, once the sheep adapt to their new habitat, the fatality rate will fall.
Pachano said Game and Fish has not adequately detailed the logic behind the reintroduction.
"They’ve simply said they want to reintroduce the herd but they haven’t explained why that’s important," he said. "They haven’t addressed whether there’s a hunting motivation behind that. And they’re going to such extreme measures for this program and we don’t know why."
However, Vega said Game and Fish has tried to include the public in the process as much as possible.
"We had three public meetings prior to the release and very few people come to those meetings. We had up to six articles in the daily star prior to the release and we want people to come and to tell us what they think. I think that’s really important." he said. "Wildlife belongs to the public and we want to hear from them. We provided that prior to the release and unfortunately we didn’t get those comments at that time but we continue to ask the public let us know what you think."
Since mid-December, Friends of Wild Animals has organized several protests at the Game and Fish offices, filed a public information request on the program and is currently planning a future protest at the Tucson Forest Service office.
"We feel like there needs to be some threshold at which they say too many mountain lions have died," Pachano said. "Too many sheep have died too fast and we’re going to pull the plug."
The reintroduction of the bighorn into the Catalinas will take time but he points to the recent births of two bighorn lambs as early signs of success, Vega said.