A lesson to learn: The disappearance of bighorns from Pusch Ridge holds lessons for those trying to protect the region's last native herd - Tucson Local Media: Import

A lesson to learn: The disappearance of bighorns from Pusch Ridge holds lessons for those trying to protect the region's last native herd

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Posted: Tuesday, July 4, 2006 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

July 5, 2006 - Once a cursory report on bighorn sheep that clung to the nearby cliffs, a sign at the Pima Canyon trailhead these days seems more like a historical marker - or even a tombstone.

Surrounded by brush, a cluster of homes and a towering ridgeline, it reads: "The Bighorn herd in Pusch Ridge Wilderness represents the last remnant of herds that once roamed throughout much of the Rincon, Santa Catalina, Tortolita, Tucson, Santa Rita and Sierritas mountains."

Ghost-like sketches of a ram and ewe anchor the text, which also warns of the Pusch Ridge herd's decline. Taken out of time, the admonition could strike one as a heroic call to action. But, in reality, that warning came far too late.

Some 40 miles to the west, the Tucson Basin's only remaining native bighorn herd - an estimated 60 to 75 sheep - makes its last stand on a stretch of the Silver Bell Mountains, flanked by an ASARCO copper mine and a massive proposed housing development.

Some activists and experts say Tucsonans need only look to Pusch Ridge - its bighorns vanished years ago - to see what eventually could happen to the sheep west of Marana if certain warnings go unheeded. Yet, a minor battle rages over whether to simply preserve the Silver Bell herd's habitat or to actively manage its existence.

A network of steep and craggy slopes, the Silver Bell, West Silver Bell and the Waterman mountains stand in what most still would consider a rugged, remote stretch of desert. Much of the bighorns' range lies within the Ironwood Forest National Monument, 129,000 acres of land with elevations ranging from 1,800 to 4,261 feet.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees the national monument, which President Bill Clinton created in June 2000. The agency has looked to Arizona Game and Fish Department officials and various interest groups, including environmentalists and hunters, for advice on how to best manage the land, a planning process that could take years.

"We've been working on this for almost four years," said Darrell Tersey, a BLM natural resources specialist for the Ironwoods.

Meanwhile, environmentalists worry that plans to develop some 20,000 acres just north of the monument, in Pinal County, continues to threaten the dwindling bighorn herd in the Silver Bells.

The previous owner of La Osa Ranch, George Johnson, for a time kept domestic goats there. Some broke free from their pens in late 2003 and, according to state game officials, infected about 30 percent of the Silver Bell bighorn herd with pinkeye, a condition that led to blindness.

Johnson had planned to build 67,000 homes at La Osa. The ranch's current owner, Vistoso Partners, has yet to reveal its plans for the property.

But any development of "anything near that density" could flood the little-used monument with a new crop of adventuresome suburbanites, worries Carolyn Campbell, the executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection.

"It would take some big measures to keep people out," Campbell said recently.

Notoriously wary of humans, desert bighorn sheep for tens of thousands of years have roamed the American Southwest. Herds ranged from Mexico north through Arizona and into Nevada and east into southern New Mexico and west Texas.

The earliest known remains of a bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) in North America go back 100,000 years, according to the American Society of Mammalogists. Scientists found the ancients fossils in Alberta, Canada, and theorized that the animals migrated to the continent from Eurasia and ranged southward through the western U.S.

A full-grown ram can weigh up to 200 pounds and live for more than 10 years. Its large, curling horns make it one of the most prized hunting trophies in the world.

For that reason, the desert bighorn in Arizona has been hunted to the brink of extinction several times in the past two centuries. Livestock, particularly domestic sheep and goats, also took their toll on bighorns here.

Some 5,500 remain in the state today, according to game officials. Almost all of the herds in Arizona required reintroduction at some point, almost all save for the small herd in the Silver Bells - the state's last indigenous population of bighorn.

A lottery doles out 90 hunting permits statewide for bighorn every year, according to Arizona Game and Fish Regional Specialist Jim Heffelfinger. Nearly 11,000 people apply for the tags each year.

The state continues to issue hunting permits for the Silver Bell herd, though it prohibited kills there for two years after the outbreak of pinkeye.

State game officials still consider limited hunting a crucial part of its bighorn conservation efforts.

Preservationists argue against hunting, especially in the Silver Bells. They also seek limits to most human and commercial activity near the mountains west of Marana.

But, simply protecting the area - closing it off and doing little else - cannot help the herd survive, according to Brian Dolan, a member of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.

A Northwest resident and former president of the hunters' group, Dolan thinks state and federal officials must "actively manage" the Silver Bell herd. That would include everything from installing water catchments along the ridgelines (some already dot the cliffs there) to removing predators, especially mountain lions.

His rationale for such intense intervention: "There's not an ecosystem around here that currently functions as nature intended."

Dolan and other like-minded conservationists worry that bureaucratic hang-ups and near-endless studies of the Silver Bell herd threaten its survival far more than human activity.

"Everything's been put on hold until (officials) can create" a plan for the Ironwoods, he said. "There's 15 years worth of planning underway right now."

That planning process pits "advocates of naturalness" versus those favoring "active management" of the herd, Dolan added.

Development pressures and fire suppression efforts led to the Pusch Ridge bighorn herd's demise, according to most scientists who studied it.

Developers in Oro Valley and in the Foothills built homes right up to the Coronado National Forest bound ary. To protect the bighorns that once roamed Pusch Ridge and much of the western and southern Santa Catalina Mountains, federal regulators instituted a number of restrictions in 1996. Those restrictions included banning off-trail hiking, especially during the sheep's' lambing season from January to June, and dog walking in portions of the wilderness. The restrictions remain in effect today.

The sheep seek out high, rocky terrain. They use the elevation to scan for predators. And, while portions of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area remain suitably rugged and free of tall vegetation, most do not. The U.S. Forest Service will put out most fires on the ridgeline, especially those that threaten the high-end homes below.

"Any time there's a fire, (forest service officials) put it out," said Paul Krausman, a University of Arizona professor who has studied the bighorn for three decades.

The Pusch Ridge sheep lost much of their natural habitat to fire suppression efforts on the mountains to the east of them and to development in the foothills below them, Krausman said.

"We have essentially boxed them in."

And, he warns, a similar confluence of events could befall the Silver Bell herd as well. "It's probably not going to be a single thing," he said.

Biologists use the term extirpation when referring to what happened to the Pusch Ridge sheep. That happens when a species becomes extinct in one portion of its historic range.

The last reported sighting of bighorn in the Catalinas occurred three or four years ago, according to state game specialist Heffelfinger.

A Pima County sheriff's deputy spotted one near Rose Canyon Lake, off the North Mount Lemmon Highway, at 3 a.m. The deputy called Heffelfinger, who at first couldn't believe his ears. The forested area seemed an unlikely spot for a bighorn. But, the deputy's photo of the animal offered confirmation.

Even before then, reports of sheep sightings had become rare, Heffelfinger said.

"It's like Bigfoot, we get reports," he said.

As late as 1998, state and federal biologists estimated that as few as 5 bighorns remained in the Catalinas.

"You can't get two biologists in a room that agrees to how many were up there," Krausman said.

None remain, although some nearby residents refuse to believe it.

Jim Kriegh, an Oro Valley founder, wonders.

"I don't know if I believe that. Who's to say they haven't moved back in the mountains somewhere."

Kriegh saw the creatures in the wild, something most Tucsonans can't say. "It's hard for me to believe that people have moved close enough to force them away."

The evidence, however, suggests it.

That's what worries environmentalist Chris McVie the most when it comes to protecting the small Silver Bell herd: people, development.

"The ecosystem is not separate from us," McVie said recently.

Federal and state regulators lack the budget for wholesale protections for the Ironwoods, McVie said flatly. "It's really, really hard to do something with nothing."

Designating the monument as a wilderness area and creating a 43,000-acre buffer for the sheep there certainly might help protect them, said McVie, of the environmental group DesertWatch. "Probably more so than any other designation."

Regulators tried that approach in the Catalinas. And it failed. On any given weekend in the cooler months, a river of hikers flows through the Pusch Ridge Wilderness.

Perhaps measures proposed by the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and Krausman "are our best chance" to protect the Silver Bell sheep, McVie concedes.

The professor and the hunters, though, have competing visions of what it might take to protect the Silver Bell herd.

Krausman thinks the state should end hunting there. Period. In fact, the state should ban bighorn hunting everywhere.

Politically unpalatable as it seems, the pro fessor thinks that a hunting ban along with additional protective measures could allow the Silver Bell herd and others to thrive.

The state also could reintroduce sheep to the Catalinas, but only after conducting prescribed burns to help restore the animals' natural habitat. On that point, he and the hunters agree.

"We have to decide whether to build water (catchments) or not . . . prescribe burns or not, remove predators or not . . . completely close off trails," Dolan said. "Everybody likes to talk about how nice it is to have sheep. Why do we have to wait till the things blink off the planet? That's almost how absurd it's gotten, that we have to wait for that to happen."

The only bighorns in the Catalinas today adorn La Reserve's neighborhood sign and the town of Oro Valley's stationary and Web site. A giant statue of a ram stands in the Hilton El Conquistador parking lot, with Pusch Peak looming high overhead.

Given the sheep's mythic status in the Catalinas, hikers in recent years have lobbied federal regulators to lift the restrictions in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area. But, regulators have declined to do so, partly because they continue to study the possibility of reintroducing a herd there.

Officials have studied that possibility for a decade.

Dolan worries that such long-winded, interminable analysis will plague similar efforts to protect the bighorns at Silver Bell. Meanwhile, he and other hunters clash with preservationists over the simplest measures, such as whether to continue building or rebuilding water catchments along the ridgelines in the Ironwoods.

It once took the Arizona Desert Bighorn Society three years to build a water catchment for the sheep and other wildlife in the West Silver Bell Mountains. Environmentalists fought them on it, opposing such an intervention.

"I wanted to say, 'Do we want sheep out here or not?'" Dolan recalled.

Interest groups and regulators continue hashing out the details for the yet-to-be-enacted Ironwoods management plan.

A BLM planning document sets several priorities for protection of the sheep and other species and says all the right things, including to "protect blocks of wildlife habitat and movement corridors, especially for priority species, and prevent fragmentation by human-related land disturbance and other activities."

A recent weekday drive around the Silver Bells and through the Ironwood Forest National Monument found evidence of what most worries all those who want to protect the bighorns there.

Mired in a wash along Silverbell Road: a late-model Ford pickup, its windshield and headlights missing. Another SUV had parked conspicuously in the desert scrub, well off the road. A pair of Border Patrol vehicles rolled down the dusty trail. Trash, empty water bottles, boxes and clothes lay strewn across many of the smaller washes. Just north of Ragged Top Mountain, a Marana Public Works crew had stopped to inspect an abandoned trailer, not far from state-owned land.

A hot morning on Thursday, June 14, the desert had grown quiet. The mountainsides looked desolate. Somewhere in the cliffs, 60 to 75 sheep remained hunkered down, out of view.

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