—-[UPDATE, March 23 — The bighorn-sheep reintroduction project was backed primarily by hunting groups, The Arizona Daily Star reports today].—-
—-[UPDATE, March 17 — Another bighorn sheep is eaten by a mountain lion doing what comes naturally.]—-
—-[UPDATE, March 8 — Criticism of the bighorn sheep program and its emphasis on eliminating the threat from mountain lions is growing.]—-
Fact: Give a hungry lion the option and it will definitely eat a sheep.
It’s not because lions get pleasure out of tormenting cowering, wide-eyed, bleating sheep and adorable baby lambs. They do so because they are higher up in the food chain, wildlife experts say. So when mountain lions in the Santa Catalina mountains attack the bighorn sheep being released there as part of a state plan, those lions are behaving like … well, like lions.
Does that make the mountain lion a killer, subject to execution? Actually, it depends.
Given that a mountain lion is by natural instinct a predator, and a sheep is fairly obvious prey, a lion vs. sheep controversy has been causing a frenzy in the Tucson area in recent months as mountain lions simply do what comes naturally. The furor started in November, when the Arizona Game and Fish Commission released 31 bighorn sheep into the Santa Catalina mountains on the northern edge of Tucson as part of a reintroduction effort, arguing that various factors, including mountain lion attacks, have led to a sharp decline in the bighorn sheep population.
And as part of the plan, when mountain lions attack and kill one of these juicy sheep, Game and Fish agents have the authority to execute them. In time, the agency has said, nature will take its course and ecological equilibrium will prevail between lion and sheep.
So far, 13 of the bighorn sheep have been killed by mountain lions in the Catalinas. However, several newborn lambs have also been spotted during the current lambing season. Several lions known to have attacked sheep have been killed by Game and Fish agents.
There are critics of the state agency’s plan for combatting lions during the reintroduction phase for the sheep, including those on the mountain lions’ side who say that the sheep project is being undertaken on behalf of hunters, and the lions are basically an inconvenience to be eliminated.
“The Arizona Fish and Game has basically become a farm department for hunters,” said Tim Dunbar, executive director of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a conservation group based in California that advocates for protection of what it calls the in-peril populations of mountain lions in the United States.
Referring to the agency’s plan for sheep reintroduction in Arizona, he said, “They are merely trying to raise the population so that they can hunt it. That’s their only goal.”
A better idea would be to introduce the sheep without also killing lions, “and let the species self-propagate and spread out naturally,” he said.
The issue of killing mountain lions isn’t just playing out in the Catalina mountains. In the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness about 70 miles north of Tucson, hunters have killed 43 mountain lions since July 2011, including three so far in 2014. Last December, a Game and Fish official shot and killed a lion after he suspected it had eaten a bighorn sheep. Two days later, another lion was killed. Autopsies showed sheep in the stomachs of both lions.
Guilty as charged, obviously — though in the lions’ defense, acting as biology has programmed you to act is probably a mitigating factor.
Killings of mountain lions don’t just happen in the wild. Last June, a mountain lion entered the backyard of a house in Peoria, just north of Phoenix. A family member recorded the encounter as the lion stalked the yard and glared through the back door. A neighbor called police. Officers shot and killed the big cat as it attempted to flee the neighborhood.
So that’s an issue for neighborhoods. “There is nothing that anyone can do to keep mountain lions away from any suburban areas, other than for residents to not feed wildlife, particularly deer or javelina, which are normal prey for mountain lions,” said Lisa Haynes, coordinator for the University of Arizona’s Wild Cat Research and Conservation group.
But speaking of wilderness areas, some are appalled that mountain lions, which are also known as pumas, can be executed for attacking an animal when it needs food in general. Others support a short-term plan to remove immediate threats from lions till the sheep population stabilizes.
“The lions are just doing what any animal would do in that situation,” said Levi Heffelfinger, a University of Arizona natural resources major and avid outdoorsman. Mountain areas, he added, “have tons [of lions] living in them. Removing a lion or two that’s hurting what you’re trying to bring back is not really going to affect the lion population overall.”
Although mountain lions are bad news for sheep, it’s worth noting that they are usually not dangerous to humans.
“A great majority of the time, mountain lions pose no threat to people,” Haynes said. “Anyone who has hiked in any of our southern Arizona mountain ranges is in high-quality lion habitat and may even have been watched by a mountain lion. Ordinarily, mountain lions are reclusive and essentially mind their own business.”
According to the Catalina Bighorn Sheep Restoration Project, the goal of the reintroduction effort is to restore ecological balance to the territory the sheep roamed for thousands of years. The sheep’s population began to diminish in the 1990s due to a variety of reasons, including fire suppression, disease and predation.
“We would like to see the bighorn sheep reintroduced and protected as much as possible and get the species built up so it’s self-sustaining again,” Dunbar said. “But when it’s only for the sole purpose of being hunted, that’s where we disagree with their policies. And we especially disagree when they are removing lions so humans can hunt.”
More than 3,500 mountain lions are killed each year by humans, the foundation says. The numbers of mountain lions killed annually has grown significantly since sports hunting of the species because more common starting in the 1970s.
Bighorn sheep are a natural food source for lions. Mountain lions in southern Arizona can roam large territories that can range up to 80 square miles, and that area is often in or around Catalina. They are also animals that shade themselves within the surrounding environment before striking prey.
Mountain lions are somewhat skittish by nature, but they will do what it takes to survive, according to Heffelfinger.
According to BalancedEcology.org, mountain lions return to their deceased prey and eat it until the meat has spoiled. They do not have a strict diet, often attacking whichever prey is available in the region they roam.
However, advocates of the current plan in Arizona say the lions also have a fair chance as the bighorn sheep population reaches a natural level. “I suspect Arizona’s mountain lion population will remain stable and healthy on a statewide basis because Arizona has such high quality, rugged and remote back country habitat,” Haynes said. “As a species, they are extremely resilient and adaptable.”
A majority of the mountain lions in the United States live in the 14 western states.
As for human interaction, experts say it is best to remain calm in any situation where you come across a mountain lion. Try to make yourself as large as possible, extending arms out. Using a firm voice and making eye contact can also be effective, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Never run away from a big cat.
When out in mountain-lion territory, always keep children and small pets close by. There are few human attacks recorded, though the ones that are reported tend to involve small children.
So, while lions tend to flee human interaction, should there be a confrontation, leave plenty of space for the puma to escape. It will often flee if a person stands his or her ground. And keep an eye on your own little lambs when out hiking with the kids.