Iconic Sheep Return To Tucson Mountains, But Is It For Good?

The last desert bighorn sheep that roamed the mountains above Tucson, Ariz., died in the 1990s, the victim of human encroachment, mountain lions, and fire suppression. Now, the iconic Southwest animal — picture the Dodge Ram's grille — is back. A herd of 31 was released Monday morning after being transplanted over the weekend from the Yuma area in the far west of the state. Why would the sheep survive this time?

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The desert bighorn sheep is all over the Tucson area. Towns and businesses use them on logos, schools use rams with their curled horns as team symbols, only one thing's actually missing, actual bighorn sheep. They disappeared from the mountains above Tucson in the 1990s. But that changed yesterday as NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Arizona Game and Fish personnel lifted the doors on a line of cages aboard a flatbed truck.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two, three.

ROBBINS: Six rams, 24 ewes and one lamb inside the cages stumbled a bit, bounded out and ran uphill into the Santa Catalina Mountains. A few had to be helped out. Bighorn sheep are normally skittish. These were especially wary. They'd been roaming mountains near Yuma the day before, when a net dropped on them from a helicopter. They were tagged, radio-collared, checked by a veterinarian, then brought here. Oh, and the sheep had to notice a hundred onlookers watching them emerge and take off.

(APPLAUSE)

MARK HART: It's unusual to have a reintroduction this close to an urban area. Most of them are far afield, happen with little notice.

ROBBINS: Mark Hart is with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He says this is one of the best sites in the state for bighorn.

HART: They really need the rugged, rocky, steep terrain that the Catalinas feature. So it's a good spot for them.

ROBBINS: The Catalinas are also a popular hiking area and, in the foothills, a place for high-end homes with views of the city. One theory is that the sheep disappeared from here in the 1990s because hikers, dogs and housing development took too much of their habitat. The other theory has to do with wildfire. Decades of fire suppression replaced the grass bighorn eat with trees and shrubs. Wildlife biologist Trica Oshant-Hawkins says that made the sheep easy prey for mountain lions.

TRICA OSHANT-HAWKINS: Bighorn sheep want to be able to see. They want that open vista. And mountain lions are ambush predators. So that vegetation that was previously there favored mountain lions.

ROBBINS: Those are just guesses, though. No one is certain why the sheep disappeared, which made the Wilderness Society's Mike Quigley initially skeptical about the reintroduction.

MIKE QUIGLEY: If we don't know why they were gone, why would we want to bring them back, right? We want to do something different than what happened before.

ROBBINS: Quigley is on board with the reintroduction because two enormous wildfires burned the mountains, restoring much of the bighorn habitat. That should give them better odds against mountain lions. There are now rules for people and pets. Dogs are forbidden and hikers have to stay on established trails in late winter when the sheep have their lambs. That's okay with hiker Mike Harris. He's just excited the animals are back.

MIKE HARRIS: You know, I think it'd be cool to be hiking along a trail and then see a couple of bighorn go bounding along again. I think it's cool.

ROBBINS: Still, it's a gamble whether the sheep will make it. The plan is to create a sustainable herd by bringing another 60 bighorn here over the next two years, and to do prescribed burns to keep their habitat livable. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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