Morenci’s Bighorn Sheep Protection Program Recognized with SPADE Award

Signage warns travelers on Highway 191 of the presence of the sheep.

December 2, 2022 - It didn’t take long for Brent Fletcher to gain an appreciation for the role the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep play in the ecosystem near Morenci’s operations in southeastern Arizona.

Fletcher, Manager, Environmental / Sustainable Development-Morenci, was in the process of moving into his home after transferring to the site in 2009 when he first was introduced to his new neighbors.

“I was unpacking stuff, and I walked by the kitchen window and there was a herd of bighorn sheep right outside the window,” Fletcher said. “I walked outside to chase them off because they were eating flowers out of the planter. They don’t act like normal sheep here; they’re sort of like residents of Morenci.”

Fast forward 13 years, and the efforts by Fletcher and his Morenci colleagues to protect those very sheep have been recognized with the Arizona Mining Association’s highest such honor. About a dozen Freeport-McMoRan employees recently accepted the association’s Sustainability, Preservation and Diversity in Environment (SPADE) Award for species protection or restoration at the organization’s annual meeting in Tucson.

Ann George, Senior Environmental Scientist, presented the project at the annual meeting, noting the benefits of the program extend beyond protection of the sheep.

“Leveraging this program for STEM education has not only increased awareness of bighorn sheep conservation but also instilled a sense of community ownership and fostered a desire to protect the species.”

For Fletcher, that initial encounter crystalized the primary challenges the sheep posed: 1) There are so many sheep in the area that encounters could pose a risk for the animals or the people who travel through the area; and 2) The abundance of the sheep near Morenci might provide an opportunity to replenish other habitats where population of the animal had dwindled.

Sheep thriving at Morenci

“Living here amongst them I see them almost every day,” Fletcher said. I’m really proud that Morenci and Freeport have a thriving population of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, which is a special thing to have in the West.”

A common site in the community surrounding the Morenci site, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep often are seen using the cliffs and talus slopes created by mining activity or simply milling around area buildings. Unfortunately, a consequence of the sheep being so common in the community is the prevalence of undesirable human-wildlife interactions, which often can be fatal for the sheep.

Highway 191 sees an abundance of hunters, tourists, car and motorcycle clubs, and Morenci employees, putting the sheep at risk. Vehicle collisions account for a significant amount of mortality of the sheep in Greenlee County. In 2006, Morenci partnered with Arizona Game and Fish, the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Land Management to develop a conservation plan for the sheep.

The plan’s goal was to manage the sheep population in a manner that allowed for sustainable hunting and public viewing opportunities while reducing collisions with vehicles and other risks in Morenci and nearby Clifton areas.

In addition to helping protect and preserve the region’s bighorn sheep population, the Morenci plan also aligns with a more concerted effort to protect the species across North America. According to the National Wildlife Federation, habitat loss and landscape fragmentation have been the primary drivers of the population dropping to 65,000 to 80,000 from an early-1900s range of 1.5 million to 2 million.

Accidents on the decline

More locally, project data suggests that vehicle collisions on Highway 191 have declined since the program was initiated. Removing and relocating surplus sheep has had the effect of reducing risk of accidents along Highway 191 while driving population increases in the relocated areas, Fletcher said.

“It’s important that we are taking meaningful actions to protect this threatened species,” said Francis McAllister, Vice President, Liability Management and Land and Water for Freeport and Chairman of the Arizona Mining Association. “The Morenci site has long been committed to collaborating with our community partners to find solutions to help protect the sheep, and the results have been encouraging. The SPADE Award is recognition of that success, and I commend our Morenci team and the other organizations whose work has been so critical to that end.”

This year’s SPADE Award is the third such honor for a company site. In 2018, Morenci was recognized for its role in protecting some 1.5 million bats roosting in nearby areas as well as for conservation education outreach in the community. In 2017, Safford was honored for its owl-protection program that resulted in the construction of 100 burrows in a cotton field east of Safford, the relocation of about 16 owls to those burrows and support for ongoing maintenance.

Photos (top photo right; bottom photos clockwise): Signage warns travelers on Highway 191 of the presence of the sheep; Altering the landscape outside the Morenci administrative building helped discourage interactions with the sheep; Members of the Freeport team accepting the award (from left) Bill Hart, Rebecca Hudson-Nunez, Ned Hall, Ann George, Jerry Roose, Sandy Casement, Trika Graham, Sandy Fabritz, Francis McAllister and Richard Bark; About 25-30 sheep are relocated each year, reducing risk to the sheep near the Morenci site and repopulating areas where the number of sheep have dwindled over the years.