Around the turn of the decade, down in the southern reaches of the state, in country as rugged and harsh as any, there was a healthy and growing herd of desert bighorn sheep, prized over all other species of wild sheep.
It was difficult to know just how many of the sheep roamed the two adjoining San Juan units. Educated guesses put the numbers between 500 and 700 and quite possibly more. These were native sheep. No non-residents among them.So stable, in fact, was the herd that game officers were trapping and transplanting the highly prized sheep into other arid and rocky areas.
However, an intensive search of the North San Juan unit in November turned up just eight mature sheep and no lambs. It's been several years, in fact, since wildlife officials last saw a lamb there.
Next door, on the South San Juan unit, they counted half as many sheep as they did last year and found no lambs, sure indications that this herd, too, is dying - lambs first, then adults.
Three viruses have been singled out as the cause. The most fatal is parainfluenza 3, or pneumonia.
The cause? Sheep! Domestic sheep. Wool and mutton sheep. They commonly carry the three viruses but have built up an immunity.
Wild sheep haven't.
There is strong evidence to support the belief that domestic sheep grazing on Hatch Point near Canyonlands passed the disease to the northern bighorn, which in turn have passed it on into the southern bighorn, and before it's over it's very likely the northern and southern herds will be completely wiped out.
Now the San Rafael herd is being threatened. It's a newer herd, started with bighorn sheep from the then healthy herds in the San Juan area back in the early 1980s.
It is now considered the state's biggest and best herd.
Latest counts indicate there are about 100 bighorn there now, adults and accompanying lambs, in what is recognized as critical desert bighorn sheep range.
Still, a herd of domestic sheep now grazes nearby, and the likelihood of the tame and wild sheep mixing is good.
A Price rancher with a cattle grazing permit on Bureau of Land Management lands also holds grazing rights to a section of state lands somewhere in the center.
Normally, the BLM would control the lands, but in this case it doesn't. The state of Utah does, or did. Seven years ago it issued a grazing permit to the Price man. His BLM permit says he must graze cattle, but his state permit apparently says nothing.
If he wanted to, he could graze rabbits.
In this case he put sheep on the land, ignoring the threat to the bighorn sheep population. BLM officials say as long as he stays on state lands they can do nothing; state officials say as long as he holds the permit, and stays within permit limits, they can do nothing. Said one state official: "I doubt we'll restrict grazing for wildlife . . . We generate revenue from grazing, nothing from wildlife."
The truth is, the BLM and/or the state could have stopped it.
The permit holder had to move his sheep across BLM property to get to the state section, which meant he had to run sheep where his permit says cattle. He was cited for trespassing but was not stopped. To leave the state land he'll have to trespass again unless he leaves by air.
True, the permit may not specify what can graze on the school sections, but the State Land Board can cancel the permit for any reason and at any time. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, guardians of the bighorn, have offered to reimburse the state for lost grazing fees.
But this is not a question of grazing rights; whether domestic or wild sheep should feed on state grasses. Nor should this be seen as a rancher vs. wildlife issue. It's a proximity problem. Domestic and wild sheep cannot share land, not without the bighorn sheep suffering.
Certainly there are other areas in the state where a permit can be transferred and domestic sheep can graze without threat to bighorn. And, certainly the BLM and the state must realize what a valuable resource the desert bighorn sheep are and that they must be protected.
It is doubtful the San Juan bighorn will pull through. Utah has lost its only native herd of desert bighorn. Maybe it's too late for the San Rafael herd . . . let's hope not.