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Associated Press
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.

The pictures are crude. Some are painted, others chipped in rock panels. The two slightly curved lines on top of the head of a four-legged animal most certainly identify bighorn sheep.

Bighorn sheep were, in fact, a vital resource for early Utahns. And, judging from the number of sheep on a single panel, they were numerous.

They provided food, clothing and tools and were more plentiful than either elk or deer.

There was a time, however, in the early 1960s, when it was believed Utah had no more bighorn sheep. There were no reported sheep sightings.

Biologists believe diseases, carried by the bighorn's cousins, domestic sheep, were the main cause of their demise.

What they eventually found was that surviving sheep escaped the threat by moving to some of the most inaccessible, most hostile country in Utah — the Colorado River corridor.

It was, remembered Jim Karpowitz, then a new biologist assigned to the Southeastern Region of Utah, who is now director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, "somewhat of a surprise."

"When I first started the job, there were very few sheep in Utah," he remembered. "What they did was moved into areas where they could survive. There were few sightings."

From that small group of sheep, Utah started a recovery program that is, today, one of the state's true wildlife success stories.

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 are often listed as a single species.

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.

Early rock art, going as far back as the 1300s, depicts four-legged animals with curled horns and human figures nearby with bow and arrow. History tells us Father Escalante wrote about bighorn sheep in his journals as he passed through southern Utah, as did John Wesley Powell on his exploration of the Colorado River.

Domestic sheep came into Utah with the Spanish explorers and stayed.

The problem, said Karpowitz, "is centered on the meeting of two worlds. Domestic sheep are old world and bighorn sheep are new world and simply have no resistance to the diseases domestic sheep have become immune to over time.

"Domestic sheep and wild sheep simply can't co-exist, even today."

In fact, a few years after discovering the herds in southern Utah, disease hit the sheep in the north end of the San Juan area, and biologists feared it might spread to other wild sheep. Fortunately, it didn't.

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.

"We had an agreement with Canyonlands (National Park) and were able to trap sheep in Canyonlands, which we did, and moved them to places like Arches and the Maze and Needles areas of Canyonlands," said Karpowitz.

Back then the only recognized capture method involved tangling the sheep in large nets.

"We started out using tangle nets, which were long lengths of net. We would drive the sheep into the net. It was hard on the sheep, and we did have some mortality. We didn't like to use the tangle net, so we started to experiment with other ways," he recalled.

"We tried the net gun and found it far superior, and that opened a new door to our transplant program. We were able to move more sheep with fewer problems. At first we did it within the division, then we went with private operators."

A net gun involves shooting a net from a helicopter and trapping a single sheep.

The one limiting factor in the early years was funding. It was expensive to catch and move sheep. It is estimated that to capture, conduct necessary blood tests and move sheep today costs roughly between $600 and $700 per animal.

The opportunity to sell a Utah sheep permit on the open market to the highest bidder through the Utah chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep proved to be a windfall.

"That first tag went for $20,000, which back then was a lot of money. This allowed us to move some Rocky Mountain sheep from Wyoming into areas near Flaming Gorge and Mount Nebo. Over the years we've also been able to trade for sheep."

Trading might involve giving fish or elk or antelope to those states with large herds of sheep.

Prior to the Wyoming transplant, there were very few Rocky Mountain sheep in Utah.

Around this time, the program got another boost. Conservation groups started working with ranchers to switch from raising sheep to cattle.

The first group of California bighorn were brought into Utah in 1997 and placed on Antelope Island, where they've done well. Sheep from the island have been caught and are now on the Newfoundland and Stansbury mountains.

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