40 bighorn sheep relocated to strengthen canyon herd

Published: Thursday, Feb. 12 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources personnel vaccinate a bighorn sheep on Antelope Island in 2008.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In mid-January, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources trapped and relocated 40 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

The objective is to establish a stronger herd along the Green River corridor through Desolation Canyon.

According to Brad Crompton, acting wildlife manager in the region for the DWR, strong bighorn sheep populations are found in the upper Green River corridor below Flaming Gorge and in Gray Canyon just north of Green River.

Before the transplant, the middle portions of Desolation Canyon supported only small, isolated groups of bighorn sheep. The transplant of 40 new animals will bolster the distribution of sheep in the canyon and help connect isolated bighorn sheep populations along the corridor.

"About three years ago, a wildfire burned about 5,000 acres in Desolation Canyon. The vegetation that's grown since the fire is ideal forage for bighorn sheep. Combined with the water, cover and space the area provides, the new vegetation should provide the 40 sheep with the food resources they'll need to reproduce successfully," he said.

The sheep were taken from a rugged, rocky area west of Green River.

In order to capture the sheep, the DWR flew a helicopter over each individual sheep and a special gun fired a net over the animal.

Wildlife biologists then hobbled each sheep, placed it in a special bag, blindfolded the animal and connected the bag to a cable under the helicopter.

The sheep were then flown to their new home. Up to five animals were flown at a time.

In all, three rams, 33 ewes and four lambs were flown about 30 miles up the Green River to Desolation Canyon.

The current population in Utah is estimated at more than 5,000 sheep, representing three genetic species — desert bighorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn and California bighorn, which is often included in the family of Rocky Mountain sheep. The Rocky Mountain and California sheep are so close genetically that they are often listed as a single species.

A small herd of California bighorns was transplanted on Antelope Island in the spring of 1997. Rocky Mountain sheep are nearly twice the size of desert bighorn. A Rocky Mountain ram can weigh up to 300 pounds. Ewes of both species are about 40 percent smaller.

Disease, changes in habitat and unrestricted hunting, especially during the uranium boom in the 1950s and '60s, nearly wiped out Utah's sheep. Biologists found a few surviving desert bighorn near Moab and in the San Juan areas. None of the Rocky Mountain bighorn are believed to have survived.

Around the mid-1970s, the DWR started an aggressive transplant program from sheep caught and moved from areas of the San Juan and the Escalante units.

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