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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 | Last updated: 1:41am

Lion and the lamb: Saving Catalina sheep means losing lions



Few things pull at heartstrings quite as intensely as adorable, loveable animals. Who among us hasn’t cried while watching “Bambi”? And every time I watch Mufasa fall down to the wildebeest stampede below him in “The Lion King,” I sob and sob.

Animals are wonderful, and no one wants to hear about them meeting untimely ends. As a result, it’s easy to be confused by the seemingly failed efforts to repopulate the Santa Catalina Mountains with bighorn sheep.

The Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society has been working in conjunction with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to reintroduce the sheep to the Catalinas. However, the results have not been overwhelmingly positive.

Thirteen of the 31 sheep moved from the Yuma Range to the Catalinas have died since the project began in November. Mountain lions, the key culprits in the sheeps’ deaths, are now being hunted in order to protect the project. In a similar experiment in Aravaipa Canyon, north of Tucson, 43 were killed, while, so far, only two lions have been hunted in the Catalinas.

As average people and fans of Disney movies, but not necessarily conservation biologists, we wonder: Doesn’t the Arizona Game and Fish Department have a heart? How on Earth does it make sense to hunt one animal in order to protect another? At least, these were my sentiments when I first learned about the program.

However, like many, I don’t have a large background in ecology and didn’t know the facts. I forgot the objective purpose of science and allowed my feelings to obscure this experiment’s goals. We non-scientists sometimes confuse facts with compassion for fluffy sheep and majestic mountain lions.

When I spoke with William Mannan, professor and chair of the Wildlife and Fisheries Resources Program in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, I was ready to rail against the Catalina Bighorn Sheep Reintroduction Project.

But when I actually talked to an expert, I realized that I had judged too hastily. Mannan said that the technique the Arizona Game and Fish Department is using to repopulate the Catalinas is tried and true.

“The technique that they’re using … [has] been used since the turn of the century when wildlife species were decimated,” Mannan said. “What they’re doing is what they’ve done for many, many years.”

The practices being used make sense from a scientific perspective. Judging the program immediately based upon initial results is easy, but we should refrain from jumping to conclusions until the entire plan has played out.

Similar practices in introducing animals to new areas are even responsible for the presence of elk in Western North America.

Though this project won’t necessarily succeed, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

“If it’s done in a short term basis, it’s a technique that’s worthwhile,” Mannan said. “[It] would not be justified over a long period of time. We aren’t dealing with a population of mountain lions that’s in any way in jeopardy. Everyone has a different opinion, but from the standpoint of populations, the mountain lion population of Southern Arizona is fine.”

Science often involves risk and sacrifice for the greater good. Without Marie Curie’s noble experimentation with radioactive chemicals, we’d have far less knowledge about chemistry. Nikola Tesla’s coils helped us to harness and control the power of electricity at much personal risk to their inventor.

Without risk, there’s little potential for progress. Through making errors, we can eventually make advancements as well. Forty-three dead mountain lions sounds disturbing, but in terms of denting the population, the hunting is not significant, according to Mannan. Right now, the bighorn sheep population is much more precarious. Killing lions is certainly unpleasant, but it could be for the best if it means helping the sheep population grow.

Viewing the Catalina mountain lions as Simba’s horribly victimized, long-lost cousins is tempting, but we should refrain from anthropomorphizing science. The project is an experiment, and that’s how it should be viewed.

Reintroducing bighorns to the Catalinas may turn out to be unsuccessful in the end, but we will not know the results until the program concludes.

“We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” Mannan said. “They’ll try it for two more years. I don’t know what the outcome’s going to be; I don’t know if anybody does.”

The Catalina Sheep Reintroduction Program is still a work in progress. In the meantime, we need to remember to view science objectively. As many a fifth-grade science teacher has stated before, only after learning the facts should you draw conclusions.

Brittany Rudolph is sophomore studying English and art history. Follow her @DailyWildcat.


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