- Associated Press - Thursday, August 7, 2014

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - State wildlife officials are drawing criticism from environmentalists for a plan to use helicopters to manage bighorn sheep in southern Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star reported Thursday.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department has asked for federal permission to use a helicopter several times a year in an area north of Tucson. The U.S. Forest Service prohibits helicopters from flying into federally designated wilderness areas.

The helicopters are the best way to monitor and, if needed, capture the sheep on rugged terrain, Game and Fish officials said. “If we didn’t think we needed that capability, we wouldn’t ask for it,” said agency spokesman Mark Hart.

According to Hart, helicopters are crucial for wildlife officers tracking sheep via signals from GPS collars in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Furthermore, the flights would only occur on a “case-by-case” basis. The state is asking for permission for flights within a 10-year period.

Organizations such as the Sierra Club and the Friends of Wild Animals say helicopter flights would negatively impact wildlife and ruin the outdoors for recreationists in the area. In an environmental impact statement, detractors say the noise from helicopters would disrupt the bighorns and other wildlife.

Cyndi Tuell, the attorney representing all the organizations in the impact statement, said there is enough encroachment already from urbanization. “The wilderness doesn’t need to be degraded any further. It’s necessary to draw a line in the sand on this project and defend wilderness,” Tuell said.

Game and Fish transplanted 31 bighorn sheep last November to the Catalina Mountains. The impact statement argues that the lack of helicopter use since the project’s inception demonstrates that flights are unnecessary.

Coronado National Forest spokeswoman Heidi Schewel said federal law does permit exceptions when it comes to helicopters.

“In this case, it was determined that yes, the action was necessary to maintain the population of bighorn sheep, which have historically been a natural component of the Santa Catalina Mountain ecosystem, including the Pusch Ridge Wilderness,” she said.

If Game and Fish receives approval, Schewel said, they will likely be limited to 10-minute flights with landings within a one to three-day period. They would likely not land more than 20 times per year.

It was not known when the Forest Service would come to a decision, Schewel said.

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Information from: Arizona Daily Star, https://www.azstarnet.com

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