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7:18 PM Mon, Nov. 12th

Bighorn sheep population thriving on range near Tucson

This photo from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service motion-activated camera shows a bighorn sheep at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona in 2013. State wildlife officials say an effort to reintroduce bighorn sheep between 2013 and 2016 in the Tucson area is paying off. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)

This photo from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service motion-activated camera shows a bighorn sheep at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona in 2013. State wildlife officials say an effort to reintroduce bighorn sheep between 2013 and 2016 in the Tucson area is paying off. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)

TUCSON, Ariz. — More hikers trekking through the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson have noticed the presence of the bighorn sheep, showing that an effort to reintroduce the animals is paying off, state wildlife officials said.

"Bighorn sheep have become a watchable wildlife opportunity in the Santa Catalinas," said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Of course, you need keen eyesight or good optics, and a little bit of luck, to see them."

A survey taken this month estimates that 66 bighorn sheep live on the range, Hart told the Arizona Daily Star.

Desert bighorns began disappearing from the Catalinas in the 1990s. An advisory committee recommended in 2013 that the department reintroduce bighorns to the mountain range.

Hart says 110 sheep in total were relocated to the range from other parts of Arizona between 2013 and 2016. The herd lost some to predators such as mountain lions as well as other causes. The population stabilized when sheep congregated in steep, rocky habitat in the Pusch Ridge area of the Catalinas. There have also been a number of births of lambs since then.

Rick Williams, of Tucson, said he has already seen bighorns multiple times around Pontatoc Canyon and managed to snap photos.

"Sometimes you notice something moving, but they appear very small in the distance," Williams said.

In September, he was resting when he heard brush moving and saw six of them.

"There was a nice ram and five ewes bedded down 75 to 100 yards across and below me," he said. "You get a little adrenalin rush. I couldn't believe they hadn't seen me."

People out on the trails still need to be cautious, Hart said. He advised against taking dogs into the Bighorn Sheep Management Area. The bighorns can be high-strung and treat dogs as predators.