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Disappeared Bighorns Could Be Making a Comeback in Arizona

Mar 23, 2015 06:30 PM EDT
Disappeared Bighorns Could Be Making a Comeback in Arizona

(Photo : Flickr: Zachary Collier)

No, we're not talking about football here. We're talking about the genuine article: bighorn sheep in Arizona state's Catalina Mountains. These iconic animals had utterly disappeared from the region in the 1990s, but now lambs are again being seen, with this season's newborns numbering just over a dozen.

That's at least according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), who confirmed the existence of a 15th lamb born this season on March 6. Prior to this confirmation, a biologist with the department had spotted an encouragingly healthy group of sheep with four lambs total, three of which had never been seen before.

So what makes seeing a bunch of lambs in the Catalina Mountains so special? It's a sign of success for the Catalina Bighorn Sheep Reintroduction Project - a program that both set out to bring bighorn sheep back to an ecosystem they once called home, and to figure out what exactly threatens their continued existence in the state of Arizona.

"We may never know the reasons for the original population decline," the AZGFD reported.

However, the project, which translocates, tags, and tracks bighorns from other mountain habitats, could show us if what threatened the animals in the 1990s is still present in the Catalina mountain range.

Currently, 40 adult bighorns are known to be alive in the range - a huge step towards numbers seen elsewhere in the state and other ranges. (Scroll to read on...)

[Credit: AZGFD / Hart ]

"We remain cautiously optimistic," Mark Hart, a spokesman for the AZGFD, recently told local media outlets. "It's wonderful news that we have that many lambs observed. But nobody's popping champagne corks yet."

So far, the relatively new reintroduction project has revealed that successful translocation is "all about habitat."

The mother of the latest 15th lamb was actually just picked up from the nearby Plomosa Mountains last November, and was translocated to the same habitat that currently boasts 2013's healthy population.

Hart warns that lamb survival for any wild bighorn isn't exactly high, with only about 25 percent making it over the course of a year. What caused these animals to disappear from the range in the first place, then, may still be waiting around the corner.

However, as things stand, the Catalinas' new herd looks happy and hale. Now we just have to cross our fingers and hope that it stays that way.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS


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