Relocation efforts and nurseries are helping to restore Utah's bighorn sheep. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 12, 2024 News » Cover Story

Relocation efforts and nurseries are helping to restore Utah's bighorn sheep. 

Feeling Sheepish

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  • Cover photo by Phil Tuttle

The bright, morning sun slowly rises over the Moab sky as an adorable baby lamb opens her large oval eyes. With long legs, a lightweight coat and cloven hooves, she is perfectly adapted for the dry, arid climate in which she resides. Additionally, she is equipped with an advanced digestive system that allows her to rapidly eat large portions of fibrous food before quickly retreating to the safety of the high, rocky cliffs.

Once she is perched well above any would-be predators, she can relax and finish digesting her scrumptious meal of grass and shrubs. This unique adaptation also provides her the ability to absorb the moisture from her diet—thus enabling her, if needed, to go days without water.

All of these biological features help the lamb to survive the harsh, unforgiving environment of southeastern Utah, according to Teresa Griffin, a wildlife program manager with the Division of Wildlife Resources.

"Bighorn sheep are uniquely adapted to inhabit some of the most rugged areas on earth," she said. Unfortunately, even with these natural advantages, the young lamb will still find it difficult to forage for food and shelter, as she attempts to evade mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, coyotes and eagles. Because only 25% of desert bighorn sheep make it through their first year of life, the odds are not in the small creature's favor.

However, if she is able to reach maturity, she could live to be 14 years old and give birth to as many as eight lambs of her own. And with the birth of her offspring, she will have the relatively tranquil calm of being free from daily competitions and fighting, surrounded by other gentle ewes and lambs. This is unlike the males of her species, for the ram (as he is referred to) spends his days competing in bachelor flocks, constantly striving for dominance and the right to mate with the females.

Despite the numerous perils and battles of their daily lives, desert bighorn sheep have maintained a relatively healthy, robust existence since they first stepped into the southwestern United States nearly 12,000 years ago. In fact, for centuries, both indigenous people and western explorers marveled at the magnificence of these breathtaking creatures and recorded bighorn sheep numbers to be somewhere in the millions. Even the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition documented catching the attention of two bighorns in April of 1805.

Unable to successfully shoot the creatures, William Clark lamented: "Those animals ran and skipped about with great ease on this declivity and appeared to prefer it to the level bottom or plain."

Clark's frustration at the close, but fleeting encounter was appeased after Sacagawea explained that they would see many more bighorn on their journey. For, as she reportedly said, "Those animals are very common to be found in the Rocky Mountains."

After becoming “locally extinct” in some areas, Utah’s mountain bighorn sheep are on the rebound thanks to protective nurseries and relocation efforts. - UTAH DIVISION OF WILDLIFE RESOURCES
  • Utah Division of Wildlife REsources
  • After becoming “locally extinct” in some areas, Utah’s mountain bighorn sheep are on the rebound thanks to protective nurseries and relocation efforts.

Regrettably, however, the bighorn sheep's population has greatly diminished in the past 200 years, so much so that the species has become at risk of extinction. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, the bighorn's population had dropped to a mere 2,000 head across the region.

This meteoric fall has been linked directly to multiple man-made issues. The first of these was unregulated hunting, which resulted in the killing of the animal not only for food, but as a prized trophy and to sell on the wild game market.

Another significant factor that decreased the bighorn's population was the introduction of livestock to the area's ecosystem.

By 1820, an estimated 3 million domestic sheep grazed freely throughout the southwestern U.S, devouring everything in their wake. But as domesticated cattle and sheep herds ravaged the overgrazed land, a severe shortage of food adversely affected the bighorn sheep.

An additional catastrophe that occurred during this time was the unintentional transmission of diseases spread from domestic herds to the wild bighorn population. Regrettably, the most deadly of these was pneumonia, which is often dormant in domestic sheep, but very contagious. The disease wreaked absolute havoc on the helpless bighorn herds, causing complications ranging from respiratory failure to lung abscesses.

The mortality rate among the many wild flocks fluctuated anywhere from 50% to 80%. Additionally, the disease caused years of low birth rates and the general health depletion of the entire population.

The Desert Bighorn Council, which is composed of wildlife professionals from seven western states, including Utah, researched and summarized why the bighorn sheep's decline was particularly devastating during that period of time.

"Following enormous population declines in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bighorn populations did not recover, in contrast to other wildlife species such as mule deer and elk," they wrote. "Bighorns have demonstrated much less tolerance than other native North American ungulates to poor range conditions, interspecific competition, overhunting, and stress caused by loss of habitat. Furthermore, they have shown a much greater susceptibility to diseases."

Nice Seeing Ewe
As the species continued to struggle, the bighorn population steadily decreased into the 20th century. This inevitably caused each generation to grow weaker and weaker.

Finally in 1998, after years of petitioning by environmental groups, the desert bighorn sheep was listed as endangered on the federal register. Around that time, re-populating efforts were actively initiated across the southwestern United States.

In Utah, like the rest of the region, the bighorn's numbers continued to be depleted throughout the 1900s. The situation became so dire that by the mid-century they were declared "locally extinct" in many places around the state, including Antelope Island and Zion National Park.

Disease screening and GPS-enabled collars have helped to protect and manage the state’s bighorn sheep population. - UTAH DIVISION OF WILDLIFE RESOURCES
  • Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
  • Disease screening and GPS-enabled collars have helped to protect and manage the state’s bighorn sheep population.

Then in 1978, in an attempt to save the population, the National Park Service partnered with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to restore 14 sheep into Zion National Park's wilderness.

After a somewhat dismal start, the sheep herds began to thrive and eventually reached a population close to 800.

This allowed for some of the animals to be relocated to other parts of Utah—thus further bolstering the population's health, and helping to reduce herd density and improving genetic diversity.

One of the most successful of these relocations occurred in 2017, when DWR and Zion National Park captured and GPS-collared multiple bighorn sheep. Each of the ewes and rams were tested to ensure they were free of pneumonia and other dreaded diseases before they were transported. Upon a clean bill of health, an experienced and skilled helicopter crew transferred the flock to San Juan County.

After some very positive initial results, Zion National Park decided to elevate and augment the relocation program. In 2019, they expanded the project to include the implementation of aerial population counts, the tracking of migrant herds and the addition of field researchers to investigate lamb success rates through the utilization of GPS collars.

Much of the relocation program's success can be linked to its partnership with the Zion Forever Project. The 2017 relocation to San Juan County was largely funded by the highly popular Adopt-a-Bighorn promotion. More than 4,000 participants "adopted" a sheep, which pushed the program over its projected revenue goal.

A Division of Wildlife Resources crew works to relocate a group of bighorn sheep. - UTAH DIVISION OF WILDLIFE RESOURCES
  • Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
  • A Division of Wildlife Resources crew works to relocate a group of bighorn sheep.

Through the Zion Forever Project, park visitors and guests are encouraged to contribute to the program and assist with its relocation efforts. Additionally, promotions like these help the group fulfill their mission to provide the park with critical resources. All of this is accomplished by the immense generosity of the grassroots community, with its network of sponsors, donors and everyday Utahns.

"Protecting the health of these iconic animals is a priority and our responsibility as stewards of Zion," Zion Forever Project director Mark Preiss said.

Furthermore, several other relocation and establishment programs have been progressing across the state. Some of these have occurred under tense situations, due to unexpected circumstances. One of the largest took place in 2019, when an emergency intervention was required.

A contagious respiratory disease invaded Antelope Island and began killing the area's bighorn population. Tragically, in order to reestablish a healthy herd, the remaining bighorns had to be euthanized. By doing this, however, it opened the door for a new, healthy sheep flock to be introduced onto the islet.

"Antelope Island has already proven itself as an invaluable resource for bighorn sheep in Utah, due to its ideal rugged habitat and relative isolation," former DWR biologist Jace Taylor said. "Even though the previous Antelope Island bighorn herd was lost, there are currently more than 600 bighorns in Utah that are descended from the 29 bighorns brought to Antelope Island in 1997. We hope this new bighorn herd will be even more successful and help provide a bright future for bighorn sheep across all of Utah."

Hoofin' It
DWR officials worked with several organizations to fulfill the intervention and relocation objective. These groups included Utah State Parks, Utah Wild Sheep Foundation (UWSF), Wildlife Services, private nonprofits and the hunting gear company KUIU.

In January of 2020, 25 bighorn sheep were captured in Montana and relocated to Antelope Island. Additionally, to ensure the prevention of future outbreaks, park officials constructed a wildlife fence on the southern end of the islet.

The fence will prevent the sheep from coming into contact with any animals that may be carrying deadly pathogens. Furthermore, DWR is slowly adding more sheep to the herd and has a final projection of 125 bighorns to permanently occupy the state park. "Antelope Island is thrilled to once again be a home for bighorn sheep," said Jeremy Shaw, Antelope Island State Park's former manager. "We are excited that visitors will again have the opportunity to see these animals in the wild when they visit our park."

Most recently, a new project was launched in early 2024 that saw the creation of a sheltered nursery for bighorn sheep. The 1,000-acre property is located near Promontory Point in Box Elder County and is surrounded completely by a high fence. The DWR partnered with the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the UWSF to develop the unique refuge.

"This will be remembered as one of the most significant events in preserving desert bighorn sheep in Utah," said Troy Justensen, president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Rusty Robinson, a DWR species coordinator, said that due to its natural habitat and low predator density, the nursery is the consummate setting for bighorn sheep to thrive.

"There have been some disease issues with our bighorn sheep populations in the past, and this new fenced area will provide a source herd of disease-free bighorns that we can use to augment existing desert bighorn populations around the state," Robinson said. "We can also use animals from this nursery herd to reintroduce native bighorns to currently unoccupied areas of Utah, as well. We are hopeful that this nursery herd will allow us to have long-term viability of desert bighorn sheep in Utah."

The DWR tentatively plans to release additional desert bighorn sheep into the nursery later this year to further bolster the population.

Currently, there are around 3,000 desert bighorn sheep in Utah and the hope is that the nursery herd will grow and may be used to expand other populations around the state.

Though it was through the actions of humans that desert bighorn sheep were extirpated from much of their homeland, it is also through human intervention that recovery has been so successful.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the time and support of local volunteers, who give their expertise and knowledge to advocate and promote the projects. Likewise, Robinson noted that numerous philanthropic groups and individuals contribute generously to the bighorn causes.

"We are so grateful to our many partners who are passionate about wildlife and assist with these conservation efforts to ensure the continuation of these remarkable species in Utah," he said.

It may seem unnecessary to point out, but the extinction of the bighorn sheep—or any native animal species—would have negative repercussions on mankind's current and future generations. That's why conservation experts say that remaining diligent to the preservation of the desert bighorn sheep should be of particular importance.

As Brendan Burns, KUIU's Chief Hunting Officer and Conservation Director, said, "This project shows the power of what's possible when the hunting community works together toward a common conservation goal to drive real results."

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