Tracking Tucson's Bighorns: Volunteers help monitor re-established herd

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Give the flying reindeer a rest. This holiday season we're checking in on some real-life animals with their own impressive head-gear.
          
They live in the mountains right nearby. They are Bighorn Sheep in the Catalina Mountains.

Before the sheep jumped out of their trailer and scampered into the mountains, Arizona Game and Fish strapped on collars that helped researchers track the sheep and tell if they're still alive.
        
Joe Sheehey is a volunteer who listens in on the bighorns four days a week.

As he sweeps a large antenna a radio chirps as it picks up the signal from one of the collars.

"Here's a ram, Sheehey says.

Before he tunes in the radio receiver, Sheehey gets an idea of where the sheep may be from a website that tracks their collars by GPS.
         
In 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 Arizona Game and Fish moved Bighorn Sheep into the Catalinas to try to re-establish a herd that mysteriously died out in the 1990s.  
         
Game and Fish released about 110 overall.  The herd is stable at about 60 sheep now.  Predators and disease reduced the herd, but new baby lambs increased it. Now Game and Fish believe the herd can sustain itself on the steep slopes of the Catalinas.
 
Some animals would rather live where there's plenty of covers so it's easier to hide from  predators.  Bighorn Sheep are just the opposite.  They want to be able to use their keen eyesight to see predators coming from a long way away.  So they're better off living where it's relatively bare.
       
Wanting to see the Bighorns is part of the reason Joe Sheehey helped plan their comeback. 

"I spent a lot of time in the 70s and 80s when the original indigenous herd was in here and spent a lot of time watching them and photographing them; so I was very excited when the opportunity came to reintroduce sheep into the Catalinas.  I'm very tuned into their success."
        
Now that the Bighorns are back, he's back to catching their lives on camera.  These are some of his photos.
        
And neighbors to the Bighorns' new home are learning you don't always need a powerful lens to see them because they don't always stay high in the hills.

Alison Hurd says, “It's great  it's a treat.”

Ginny Noyes says, “Very exciting.  Several neighbors have seen them one at a time, backyard, pretty exciting other times, two or three walking down the street just like they own the place. It's wonderful." 

KGUN9 Reporter Craig Smith: “Even seen them right there in your backyard?” 

Alison Hurd: “In my front yard  I've seen three or four I used to have a horse and a goat and a couple of times I think they came down to see the goat. They'd hang out by his pen."
        
The collars that show where the sheep go last a few years. They're programmed to drop off about the time the batteries give out. Then Joe Sheehey and volunteers like him will put down their trackers and simply enjoy watching the bighorns enjoy their new home.

 

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