'A taste for bighorn sheep': Mountain lions threaten wildlife project
By Kevin Keen. CREATED Jun 7, 2013
SANTA CATALINA MOUNTAINS, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - With four legs and a tail, these big cats are prepared to kill. Wildlife officials are worried mountain lions could bring to a bloody end a plan to put bighorn sheep back in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Now, there's a plan to keep that from happening.
Government agencies and organizations aim to reintroduce a herd of more than 100 desert bighorn sheep into the mountain range next to Tucson. The original herd disappeared in the 90s.
But with that restoration plan comes a potential problem.
“It's possible that we're going to have a mountain lion that acquires a taste for bighorn sheep,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “We know from past experiences in the state that some mountain lions -- but not all -- will eat sheep.”
The sheer number of pumas in the area doesn’t help the situation either. Hart puts that number at 60 to 70 in the Catalinas and Rincons, thanks to a thriving population of more than 10,000 deer.
Officials suspect that number’s growing, based observations from hunters and others.
Now, if one of the pumas sink their teeth into bighorn sheep in the fall -- when the sheep arrive -- there’s a plan.
Game and Fish calls the process an “administrative removal."
“It's somewhat euphemistic,” Hart said. “Basically, we're talking about identifying a mountain lion that's taken a bighorn sheep and put it down. Kill it.”
9 On Your Side viewer Jen Marcus Fernandez wanted to know, “Can't they relocate the mountain lions?”
Hart said it doesn't work that way: “We are likely introducing it into another lion's territory. In which case, they will fight to the death.”
He added zoos are full.
Wildlife officials stressed they will not kill a mountain lion unless they're sure it has killed sheep. They do not know how many lions could or will kill sheep.
Just how can experts pinpoint the one puma responsible for killing a sheep? Every sheep will have a GPS collar, Hart explained, and that device will detect when one dies. Workers will examine the body and wait for a puma to return because they tend to spend many hours with the prey they kill.
KGUN9 would like to thank the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for allowing our crew to film its bighorn sheep and mountain lions for this story.