SAN JUAN COUNTY — It was not your typical sheep habitat with lots of trees, dirt and very little slick rock which is why only 26 bighorn sheep got new Utah zip codes last week. The Division of Wildlife Resources had planned on moving 40.
After two days of tracking and netting, the DWR had captured 14 ewes, six rams and six lambs from the Zion Unit in southern Utah. Still, that’s 26 fewer sheep from an overpopulated herd ripe for disease. The captured sheep will begin a new life in the Knock Eye Dome area in the South San Juan area.
"There are simply too many sheep in the unit," said Jason Nicholes, wildlife biologists in the Southern Region for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "It is a healthy herd, though, which surprised us. We did a disease profile last year and it came out better than we expected, given their close proximity to domestic sheep.’’
Domestic sheep spread diseases, particularly pneumonia, which wild sheep are not immune from and other diseases that can be easily spread within a wild herd. Nicholes said too many wild sheep increases the possibility of contact with domestic sheep.
But it’s not easy capturing wild sheep, especially in tree-heavy terrain where sheep can hide.
First, the sheep had to be found. Then a helicopter pilot and crew flew in and, using a net gun, captured the sheep. The sheep were then hogtied, fitted into a sling and flown a short distance to a staging area where biologists drew blood samples, attached radio collars and placed the sheep in trailers to be transported to the new area.
Earlier in January, wild sheep were trapped and moved off Antelope Island. During that move as well, biologists were unable to meet their capture expectations, capturing 27 of the 40 sheep they were hoping to catch. Conservation outreach manager, Phil Douglass said the terrain made trapping very difficult.
“The second the sheep heard the helicopter, they ran into the cracks and crevasses," Douglass said. "We used firecrackers to try and get them out, but once out, they’d turn around and run back. After the first day, the sheep were very skittish.’’
The sheep were moved to Oak Creek near Oak City.
There was also another wild sheep transfer in December 2013. Nevada Fish and Wildlife gave Utah 49 desert bighorn sheep from an overpopulated Valley of Fire herd. Those sheep were moved to a remote area near Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell. In 2012, Utah biologists also relocated 50 sheep from Nevada into the Kaiparowits East Unit.
The area of the capture was more like that typical of bighorn habitat including lots of slick rock, sparse vegetation and lizards. There were few places for the sheep to hide so trapping was much easier.
Bighorn sheep have a long history in Utah. Early rock art by Native Americans depict animals with the large curved horns. Father Escalante wrote in his journal that the abundance of wild sheep tracks in Utah “are like those of great herds of domestic sheep.’’
In the 1960s, because of over hunting, disease and predation, Utah’s sheep population was down to a few desert bighorn in the San Juan area.
Through an intense rebuilding program by the DWR and supporting hunting groups, the sheep numbers have recovered. Currently the total Utah sheep population — desert, Rocky Mountain and California bighorn — is estimated to be around 4,500 animals.
Rocky Mountain and California bighorn are found in the northern areas of the state and the desert bighorn mainly in the southern areas. Desert bighorn get their name from the fact that they have been able to adapt to the lack of water in desert areas.
Where Utah once held only a few of the majestic bighorn sheep, it now has a population strong enough to allow for capturing and transplanting the sheep to new areas suited for the sheep.