These Arizona bighorn sheep look pretty excited to be home

Bighorn sheep being released in the Santa Catalina Mountains, north of Tucson, AZ.

All photos courtesy of Karen McCrorey.

Bighorn sheep are being reintroduced to Arizona's Santa Catalina Mountains after more than a decade away.

They say you can’t go home again. But then, they probably aren’t bighorn sheep.

More than a decade after the last native bighorns left the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, AZ, scientists are reintroducing the species to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness Area with an eye toward establishing a population of 100 within the next three years.

The first group of sheep, numbering just over 30, was helicoptered in from Yuma by the Arizona Game and Fish Department on Nov. 18 with the endorsement of the Wilderness Society and other groups. Another 30 sheep are expected to be moved to the area in 2014, and all will be tracked closely so that state officials can monitor their progress.

“While we still have work to do mitigating human impacts and restoring the natural order of the ecosystem, releasing these bighorns was a major milestone on the road to making the Santa Catalina Mountains and Coronado National Forest whole again,” said Mike Quigley, an Arizona-based Wilderness Society representative who has been involved in the effort for about a year. "Additionally, it is a sign that seemingly disparate groups can find common ground for the good of land, wildlife and our communities."

Scientists aren't completely sure why Santa Catalina bighorns faded in the first place, but one factor is thought to have been a lack of wildfires. Without natural blazes to clear the desert landscape periodically and prime it for a fresh cycle of vegetation, varied plant growth had trouble finding purchase. In its absence, thick underbrush ran wild, giving prowling predators the upper hand.

Several years ago, fire cleared out the needed space, and now this rocky portion of the Coronado National Forest is ready to welcome bighorns again. New rules have been instituted to limit human interference, too: dogs are no longer permitted in the area, and hikers must stick to established trails during the winter, when the bighorns typically give birth. With the help of such measures, as well as carefully controlled "prescribed burns" to keep the ecosystem working properly and reduce the chances of big, catastrophic fires, scientists hope the transplanted bighorns will eventually fall into a natural rhythm, coexisting with resident mountain lions and other wildlife in a sustainable way.

Bighorn sheep are good runners and can scale sheer, steep slopes with a grace that belies their size and physical power. They need rocky peaks and cliffs to feel comfortable, and the Santa Catalina Mountains fit the bill.

Despite this, officials said that some in the first class of reintroduced Santa Catalina bighorns were initially reluctant to leave the trailer that carried them to their new home. Once they got going, though...

...they seemed excited to be there.

And I mean really excited.

They should be. Thanks to conservation efforts, bighorns in parts of the western U.S. have recovered recently after years of deterioration. Reintroduction to the Santa Catalina Mountains is another sign that the sheep have a promising future on public lands.

Unfortunately, some populations are still at risk. Bighorn sheep in Idaho have been threatened by habitat loss, mismanagement and diseases spread by non-native domestic sheep for decades. The Wilderness Society has been instrumental in ending harmful domestic sheep grazing in some bighorn habitat, but the fight continues to provide a long-term solution for these iconic animals throughout the west.

Learn more about at-risk bighorns and what we are doing to help them.

All photos courtesy of Karen McCrorey.