Sheep Suit

The state may finally dun the developer responsible for destroying a quarter of a bighorn herd

North of Marana, the Silverbell Mountains rise into a hard-knuckled phalanx of crevices, boulders and broken bluffs. Within this range, deep amid the Ironwood Forest National Monument, a tenacious band of bighorn sheep clings to isolated existence. Arizona's sole native herd, it's believed to number between 70 and 100.

Last fall, escaped domestic goats infected the bighorns with twin curses--blindness-causing pink eye, and horrendous mouth sores called ecthyma that disrupt grazing and nursing. When officials finally corralled the outbreak, a good quarter of the herd was dead. Or good as dead: "Some animals can be blind and survive," says Richard Ockenfels, an Arizona Game and Fish research supervisor. "But you can't be blind and be a bighorn sheep."

Now, nearly a year after the Silverbell sheep were decimated, the man responsible for their demise still hasn't paid for his damage. But that may be about to change. The state Attorney General is investigating the deeds of George Johnson, dubbed Arizona's most "notorious" developer. While the AG's office won't confirm the pending lawsuit, "I don't think it's a big secret that we're looking at what's happened over the last couple of years," says spokeswoman Andrea Esquer.

At stake is not only ongoing treatment of the herd, but recouping a small fortune spent saving the survivors. In the end, it could be a hefty price tag for Johnson. Ockenfels figures total costs--including department man-hours and lab work--rise to $75,000. "Additionally, non-profit organizations also spent time and money on the issue," he says. "The Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society was very involved, as was the University of Arizona, (which) also incurred costs by a graduate student and professor."

Johnson had planned to raise 67,000 homes on La Osa Ranch, sprawling alongside the Santa Cruz River. But after widespread outrage, his grand scheme was rejected on March 18 by the Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission. Nor was he helped by his heavy rep as a bad-boy developer, stemming from record fines levied against his Scottsdale-based company, Johnson International, for water contamination on other projects.

Meanwhile, Johnson had bladed 20,000 acres of his La Osa property without permits, decimated an ancient Hohokam archaeological site and ruined Santa Cruz wetlands. For his handiwork, he has earned a trespassing notice from the U.S. Bureau of the Land Management, and his grazing lease was yanked by the Arizona Land Department.

But that wasn't until after he'd situated 5,000 goats on his ranch; soon, more than 100 of the animals had ram-rodded a three-strand barbed wire fence and infected the bighorn herd.

Bureaucrats were slow to respond, says Brian Dolan, president of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society. Members of the hunters' group first noted goats running amok in early fall, and began issuing urgent missives to state officials, federal officials and to Johnson himself. But nothing happened. "I think everyone was in denial," Dolan says. As for Johnson, "he finally responded when we told him we were gonna start posting pictures of dead sheep on the Internet."

Soon, Game and Fish biologists swooped in to treat the sheep one-by-one. "In the end, about 25 percent of the animals died," says Ockenfels. While it could have been worse, the loss "threatens this particular herd because it's a small, isolated population. It's harder for them to catch up."

This week, Game and Fish will conduct over-flights to get a better handle on the number of survivors. And this work is not cheap. Not surprisingly, department officials now want Johnson to cough up some cash.

Joining them, under the auspices of the Attorney General, is the State Land Department. Johnson's blading frenzy destroyed wildlife habitat and damaged the archaeological sites, according to spokesman Richard Hubbard. "I don't know the status of any legal action," he says. "But I know it's moving along."

On a brighter note, the disaster has prodded the Land Department into keeping better tabs on what livestock graze where. It's about time, says Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Center for Biodiversity. "Domestic animals should be kept at least nine miles from the sheep. That protects them from getting infections carried by flies." It's estimated that Johnson's goats were within five or six miles of the sheep.

While the goats were grazing legally, Hubbard says buffers between livestock and wildlife are expanded under new policies. And he blames a manpower shortage for his department's failure to keep closer tabs on the goats. "We have a staff of four overseeing eight million acres of grazing land with 1,200 lessees," he says.

But Brian Dolan calls that a load of bunk. "Oh, they'll say they only have a couple of guys watching over millions of acres," he says. "But I think it was like the Keystone Cops how this was handled."

Meanwhile, Arizona Game and Fish hit up the Bighorn Sheep Society for financial help during the sheep rescue, says Dolan. "We told them they should go after Johnson first."

Attempts to contact George Johnson were unsuccessful. But Brian Tompsett, vice president of Johnson International, says he hadn't "heard anything" about the pending litigation. But he claims that Johnson had pledged money early on. "I don't know why there would be litigation," Tompsett says. "We offered to pay in excess of (the state's) request."

Sure they did, says Brian Dolan--in return for a guarantee that the company wouldn't be hit up again for more money. "To their credit, nobody at the state was gong to buy that."