Mountain Lions, Bighorn Sheep Die In Effort To Restore Nature

December 13, 2013

Mountain Lion

VIDEO: This mountain lion was humanely captured in 2008 by a rancher near Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, after it had preyed on his cattle. Mexican game officials took custody of the lion. Wildlife biologists at the University of Arizona said it's the same type of cat that lives in the Santa Catalina Mountains where Arizona Game and Fish re-introduced bighorn sheep last November.

Last November, Arizona wildlife officials began a program to re-introduce bighorn sheep to the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson. Thirty-one of the iconic animals were trucked in from a wilderness area, fitted with tracking devices and offloaded into the mountains.

But shortly thereafter, another iconic creature, the native mountain lion, stalked and killed two of the bighorns. Then those mountain lions were shot and killed by Arizona Game and Fish.

The re-introduction and the subsequent lion killings are all a bid in trying to restore a balance to nature that was affected by humans 20 years ago.

Within weeks of their release into the mountains, the bighorns began to die. An Arizona Game and Fish Officer found the first body on a Saturday afternoon. He turned around and one of the big cats was standing 10 yards behind him. He felt threatened and shot the lion dead.  

Then a second bighorn’s body was found. A tracker using hounds hunted that lion down and killed him.

Arizona Game and Fish makes no apologies for the killings. It's agency policy, especially in the first case because the officer feared for his life, said spokesman Mark Hart.

"Mortalities are common and we have always been very direct about our intention to take mountain lions that we can determine have preyed on a bighorn sheep," he said.

That policy will stay in place until the bighorns are re-established in these mountains. The relocation itself is a policy that some conservation groups backed.

"This is a case of trying to re-establish the natural order of things on the mountain range," Hart said.

But some question what the agency means by "natural order."

Michel Marizco
Mountain lion hunter Warner Glenn standing on his ranch in Southern Arizona.

Sandy Bahr is director of the Sierra Club in Arizona. The organization has approved relocations in the past, especially for endangered species. Whether through development or through forest fire suppression policies in the 1990s, humans killed off the bighorn sheep in the Catalinas. And now humans brought them back. But in order to do that, humans needed to kill the mountain lions that threaten the bighorns.

Bahr wonders if in the end killing mountain lions for doing what they naturally do won’t then put those animals in danger. A recent study found there are between 60 and 70 lions in the mountains where the bighorns now live.

"It’s not a question of not seeing them restored but under what conditions. If our goal is just to have a modified zoo existence for animals, then we should just say no to that," Bahr said.

Warner Glenn is a rancher and a hunting guide who has trailed mountain lions in the nearby Chiricahua Mountains since he was a kid.

"After a brief stint in the Army, about 1960 to now, I’ve been hunting lions," he said as he hammered out horseshoes on an anvil. His ranch abuts the Mexican border in Cochise County.

He says those days of wild nature taking its own course are long gone.

"Not anymore," Glenn said. "There’s not a natural order anymore. Things change. One thing is our population of people. And your mountain lion and well all your wildlife habitat is diminishing to the point where it concentrates a lot of your wildlife in certain areas."

So we’ve already redefined nature and those natural orders.

But David Christianson, a wildlife biologist at the University of Arizona, says that in the West we did that long ago to animals like elk, antelope or deer.

"There was a time when they almost completely disappeared. They were on the same track as bison were but now states like Arizona have an abundance of some of these species," Christianson said. 

So the bighorn sheep will have a chance in the Catalinas. Thirty more will be introduced next year, then another 30 more. Game and Fish hopes for a herd of 100. Benefit, yes, but the cost may be seen in another unfortunate mountain lion harvest.