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What is Happening to Our Sheep?
 
Bighorn SheepBackground:
Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD) reintroduced 30 desert bighorn sheep in 1980–1981 into an area of central Arizona. The population grew to more than 200 animals by 1994, and then declined about 65% or more through 1997 as drought conditions prevailed. From 1997 to 1999, the population tended to stabilize at a low level, and poor lamb production continued. We began to study this population in 1999 to evaluate factors possibly contributing to poor population performance, including disease, nutritional status, and predators.

Location:
The bighorn sheep population under study is located in the Mazatzal Mountains, and inhabits a narrow band of rugged terrain contiguous with the north sides of Apache, Canyon, and Saguaro reservoirs on the Salt River, about 65 miles northeast of Phoenix.

Approach:
Bighorn sheepEach October between 1989 and 2003, AGFD personnel monitored the population and counted total bighorn, males, females, lambs, and yearlings observed, to help evaluate population trends. We captured bighorn sheep using net guns fired from helicopters between June 2000 and October 2002, and often recaptured individuals. We placed mortality-sensitive radiocollars on each captured animal to assess distributions and survival; these collars emit a particular signal when they no longer record movement. We examined each captured animal physically for disease symptoms, and collected blood, fecal, and parasite samples to evaluate exposure to a wide variety of diseases. We also measured forages for indications of overuse, and collected fecal samples from adults and lambs to determine diet and nutritional status of the population. We monitored predation directly by locating carcasses of bighorn and attempting to determine cause of death, and indirectly by measuring occurrence of bighorn remains in scats deposited by bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions. This research project is scheduled to end June 30, 2004. The study will end and a final report will be completed on June 30, 2004.

Benefits:
Our findings will benefit conservation and management of desert bighorn sheep populations by increasing understanding of factors that affect their performance, persistence, and management. Results also will benefit conservation and management of bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions through better understanding of predator ecology and predator:prey relationships.

For more information contact:
Ted McKinney, Arizona Game and Fish Department, 2221 West Greenway Road Phoenix, AZ 85086-5000
Phone: (602)789-3248 Email: tmckinney@gf.state.az.us
 
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