ZION NAT’L PARK – “Mama, where are you?” The Desert Bighorn Sheep lamb could be thinking just that. But not really, since the mama ewe was nearby when the photo was recently taken. However, in December, fifty of the wild sheep were trapped in Zion National Park and translocated to other areas of Southeastern Utah. Why, isn’t the habitat in Zion N.P. good enough? Yes, it is. The habitat is great in the Zion N.P. area, but a growing population is a concern for other reasons.
The Desert Bighorns are native to the Park, as well as many other areas of Southern Utah. The Escalante Expedition, and later, the John Wesley Powell Expedition of 1869, reported observing large numbers of Desert Bighorn Sheep in Southern Utah. So what happened to them?
With pioneer settlement in the 1800’s, large herds of domestic sheep and goats were herded onto or nearby traditional use areas of the wild sheep. Unfortunately, the domestic animals were carriers of several diseases that soon infected the wild sheep populations that had no immunity. The result was the wild bighorns largely disappeared from most of their traditional homelands. The last observation of the Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Zion N.P. area was in 1953.
In recent decades, as domestic sheep were replaced in many ranching operations by cattle, opportunities arose to restore the native wild sheep back to their traditional homelands. A plan to restore the bighorns resulted in a small group of Desert Bighorn Sheep being released in Zion N.P. in 1973. For nearly two decades, the bighorn population stayed small and well hidden in the Parunoweap Canyon and the other isolated canyons of the southern part of the Park.
About 15 to 20 years ago, the populations began to increase significantly, and were being frequently seen along Highway 9, in the eastern part of the Park. They continued to increase in numbers to where they are now continually observed on and along the highway.
The problem is, the new diseases that were introduced by the domestic sheep and goats in many areas throughout the West still remain, to a small degree, in a few bighorn carriers. Thus, having a large and growing population of bighorns, confined to a limited area, becomes a real concern. In several areas of large bighorn populations, some limited evidence of those diseases is still observed. Consequently, wildlife managers have resorted to keeping populations reasonably controlled and healthy.
In several areas of Utah, such as Zion N.P., hunting is not an option for population management. Thankfully, a plan was developed and approved to trap some of the excess wild sheep from the Park and relocate them to areas where they are really needed. Thus, the trap and transplant occurred in December, 2017.
Hopefully, the Desert Bighorn Sheep in Zion N.P., and adjacent areas, will remain healthy and be an important part of the historical wildlife landscape of Southern Utah.