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Fate of the Big Horn Sheep; and a reply from Bunny Fontana

desertbighornMore than 25 years ago I attended a celebration, the promotional grand opening of a spectacular land development, La Reserve. It was developed by Bill Estes Jr. and his company. It was an end-of-day affair, and I drove from Park and Irvington on the far southside to a new building, a headquarters, on the backside of Pusch Ridge. It felt like driving to Phoenix.

It was about this time year, just before Christmas. It was bone-chilling cold. The road wound around the new Sheraton Hotel and then up the ridge. I was surprised. The road ran a long way up the mountain, and I wondered how Hillside Ordinance would permit development this far up. This was a little bit of county legislation passed in reaction to the purchase of a hilltop in the Tucson Mountains by Garry Brav, a contractor. Brav didn’t just buy a hillside. He bought a mountain at the end of Trail’s End Road, which is a tributary of Camino Del Oeste on the westside. Brav proposed to build a home on the top of the mountain. A great protest ensued. The ordinance passed. But Brav was there first. You can see that Brav has built a compound at the top of one of the peaks. The road switches back up the mountain. It is a very steep rise.

Trail’s End is one of those gated communities. But you can see through binoculars that there are two big houses at the top of the mountain. And of course you can see the road and the great and needless scar up the mountain. Environmentalists in those days were somehow more vocal, prone to raising hell over the slightest blip in the desert. They had sway if for no other reason than they hollered.

In any event, this place reminded me of the Hillside Ordinance. For good reason. The road rose sharply, and it was then I understood why some environmentalists had hollered about the threat to the already dwindling herd of Big Horn Sheep in the Catalinas. They contended that Estes’ La Reserve development would spell the end of the Big Horn in the Catalinas.

If you are not from around these parts, the Santa Catalina Mountains lie north of Tucson, as pretty a bunch of sky islands as you’ll ever see. They rise majestic from the desert floor at about 2500 feet above sea level to somewhere around 9,000 feet. As my grandmother said about giving birth to eight-pound twins, that’s quite a chore. It still amazes me that it takes but about three quarters of an hour to get from saguaro cactus to tall pines and purple lupine. It’s something desert rats like me take for granted, but still makes my jaw drop just the way it did when as a kid I saw my first redwood.

The Catalinas accommodated, deer, Big Horn, bears, mountain lions and the like. In good years, there was ample water.
As the temperature dropped, the guests at this grand gathering were treated to cheese and wine. And then Bill Estes Jr. stood to speak.
Estes was in his time an enormous influence in this town. At one point, I am very sorry to say, I thought he was a villain developer, out to wreck the desert. This in the 1980s was a popular view. And quite wrong as a short story will illustrate.

Estes & Co in this time owned another development the northwest side. A Star reporter got a tip that this development threatened to ruin the habitat of hawks that had taken residence and even foster families. There was a nest or a bunch of nests, my memory is a little imprecise. The reporter wrote a story that foretold the likely destruction of the birds. It was a one-sided account, told only from the point of view of outraged environmentalists. The reporter said he tried to obtain a response from the developer, but was told no one was available. The reporter and his editor concluded the developer was simply avoiding commenting on an embarrassing environmental problem. Thus a one-sided tale appeared in the Star in a Page One Sunday article. On the following Monday, I received call from a manager at the Estes organization requesting a meeting. A couple days later at that meeting, Bill Estes’ managers noted that they not only knew of the hawks’ nests, but checked on them daily. In fact, they knew the birds well and liked them, were concerned about them, had consulted experts. Moreover, they had a plan to take care of them. I ordered another reporter to redo the story.

I do not remember what Estes said. Just that he held up one of those ceremonial checks. It was made out to the University of Arizona for $100,000 and meant for research into the preservation of Big Horn Sheep. Then it began to snow. It was breathtakingly beautiful. It fell heavy and soft. A big snow in the desert happens but once or twice in half a lifetime, and I saw this one from very high up. It was spectacular. The Big Horn Sheep disappeared six or so years later. The prevailing assumption has been that the sheep were the victim of development, human encroachment. It was an easy and simple explanation, too simple really, the sort of thing that’s actually supposition but taken as gospel.

That’s the reason I welcome the experiment by the Arizona Fish and Game Department to introduce 31 Big Horn Sheep in the Catalinas. It is a worthy experiment because it should resolve the question of sheep survivability.

Four sheep have been killed so far by mountain lions. This has provoked sharp criticism. Arizona Fish and Game officials have killed two lions. The critics contend this a great tragedy. They may be right. Then again, if the sheep learn to survive, the Catalinas will be richer habitat. We are able to keep track of the sheep because they are equipped with GPS collars and thus we know where they are. And evidently, so do the mountain lions.

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A reply by Bunny Fontana:

Dear Steve,
I certainly don’t profess to know anything about desert bighorns other than to enjoy the beauty of seeing them in the wild (which I have, out in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge). But I have a couple of friends who know a lot about them, including one who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the subject but who is now retired and living in the northern reaches of Alberta, Canada.

If I understood them correctly in numerous conversations with them, desert bighorns are semi-migratory, which is to say that seasonally they come down out of the rocks and steep mountainsides to graze on annual grasses and other forage in the intermontane valleys before, as is often the case, moving onto one of the adjacent mountain ranges. In other words, they are basin-and-range creatures, not simply (mountain) range animals. Norman Simmons, the guy with the Ph.D. dissertation, used a paintball gun and different colors of indelible paint to shoot populations of sheep in separate ranges on the Cabeza Prieta. This was in the pre radio-collaring days, so it was a somewhat crude way of being able to tell on sight which sheep had been where. It wasn’t long before Mexicans a long way south of the border began reporting sightings of bighorns wtih different colored splotches on them.

What all this suggests is that in order to maintain a stable population, desert bighorns need more than just mountains. They need the valleys, too. Moreover, unlike javelinas, coyotes, raccoons, and bobcats, which seem not to mind suburban (and even urban) surroundings all that much, desert bighorns are notoriously skittish around Homo sapiens. This would further suggest that it is the overall development next to and up into the Catalinas that is the problem and not that of any single housing or commercial devleopment. Places like Oro Valley and Saddlebrooke figure into the equation as well.

Arizona State Fish & Game relies solely on sales of hunting and fishing licenses, including the very expensive permits to hunt desert bighorns, for its income. There are plenty of desert bighorns thriving in places like the Kofa Mountains; the species is not endangered. But no one lives in the Kofa Mountains nor are the Marines and Air Force folks bombing hell out of it. So why not plant desert bighorns in the Catalinas should there be even the slimmest chance a potentially lucrative source of G&F income might be generated? And God knows there are plenty of mountain lions, animals that sometimes need to be “harvested” at a cost to G&F. Those big kitties are great until they start to eat your livestock or gobble up your pets.

Someone whom I would trust as knowledgeable told me the other day there is a huge number of mountain lions in the Catalinas, some of them now routinely showing up in places like Sabino Canyon and in the yards of people living in the foothills. This person actually cited a figure, but other than being surprised by how high it was, I don’t recall the exact number.
It would be nice to have desert bighorns within view again. Just as it would be nice once more to see Sonoran pronghorns at Oracle Junction as Hazel and I did when we arrived in Tucson in 1955. But except for temporary injections like the one currently being administered, I suspect those days are gone forever.
B. \ /
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