TUCSON, Ariz. -- State wildlife officials addressed critics of its sheep-relocation project Friday, saying the effort could still prove successful despite the deaths of more than a dozen bighorns north of Tucson.
Animal welfare advocates have been divided over the transplanting last November of 31 bighorns east from the Yuma area to the Santa Catalina Mountains.
Ben Brochu, an Arizona Game and Fish wildlife manager involved in the project, said the 15 sheep deaths were a surprise.
"We expected to lose sheep. I don't think anyone expected to lose them at this rate," Brochu said. "But it's still too early to throw in the towel. But by the same token, we need to be able to evaluate all the different options and figure out how to proceed."
Friends of Wild Animals, a coalition of local citizens, joined with Supporting & Promoting Ethics for the Animal Kingdom in calling for an end to the project. Both groups plan to protest the issue outside an Arizona Game and Fish Commission meeting Saturday.
Ben Pachano, a Friends of Wild Animals spokesman, said trying to boost populations doesn't justify putting the sheep in a vulnerable position or killing predatory mountain lions. He also disagreed with supporters' assessment that the agency's removal of three mountain lions did little overall damage to the mountain lion population.
"I'm always skeptical of `It could be worse' arguments," Pachano said. "I think it's a logical trick. I think the underlying attitude of `We're going to remove a predator for exhibiting perfectly natural behavior' shows an ideological corruption in the program."
Game and Fish spokesman Mark A. Hart said a handful of mountain lions could easily decimate the entire herd in a year. As a result, he said, the agency is obligated to remove them, and that could remain the strategy for the next two years. The plan was thoroughly vetted by an advisory committee that included animal-welfare groups, Hart said.
"The bighorn sheep would not be at a current estimate of 6,000 were it not for translocation efforts over the years," Hart said. "We deserve great credit for involving the greatest community of stakeholders possible."
The Center of Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based nonprofit focused on conservation, was one of those stakeholders. While the organization has agreed with Friends of Wild Animals on other issues, the center ultimately agreed to join the advisory committee.
"There's no question this reintroduction has saved the bighorn," said Randy Serraglio, the center's Southwest conservation advocate who sat on the committee. "We support reintroduction as long as it's backed by good science and done in a responsible way. That's why we got involved."
The number of deaths has been offset somewhat by hopeful signs in the form of newborn lambs. Game and Fish employees have spotted three while out checking on the sheep, which are tagged with GPS radio collars. Hart said there are likely more lambs.
Pachano contends that the project addresses a moot issue because bighorns are not even considered endangered species in Arizona.
Wildlife manager Brochu said that is true, but they are endangered in other states. He added that their healthy status in Arizona is because of past proactive management efforts.
"If we allow a species to get down to that endangered level, the costs associated with bringing that species back to a viable level are almost undoable," Brochu said.
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