MOAB The first task is to locate the desert bighorn sheep, which isn't always easy. Even the most dependable of sheep, members of the "town herd," aren't always where they're expected to be.
Once located, then and only then, at this time of year, is it possible to witness the courtship ritual of one of the more majestic animals found in the wild.
If there is an opportune time to see the sheep, it's now.
Rams leave their bachelor pads, called "ram bands," and join the ewes for their once-a-year courting ceremonies in mid- to late-November. It is a time of year when little else matters to the rams but hitting heads and wooing the females.
And it is a time for the ewes to step back and watch this battle for their affections.
The reason it's a good time to view sheep is that with all this activity, the sheep are less wary of people, gather in larger groups and are more likely to be seen. Which is why the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources holds its annual Bighorn Sheep Festival at this time of year.
The Moab festival will run Friday evening and most of the day on Saturday. The Provo festival will be Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
On Friday, in Moab, at 7 p.m., Bill Bates, regional big game manager, will present a PowerPoint program on the history and ecology of the bighorn.
Saturday, in Moab, DWR staff will guide auto safaris to areas where sheep have been seen. The Moab trip will begin at 8 a.m. from the Moab Information Center in the middle of town. The subject matter will be the desert bighorn.
The Provo event will begin at 10 a.m. at Rock Canyon Park, 2620 N. 1200 East. The subject matter here will be the Rocky Mountain bighorn.
Both events are free.
There are three species of bighorn found in Utah:
• Desert bighorns live in several locations in southern Utah.
• California bighorn sheep have been translocated to Antelope Island State Park and the Newfoundland Mountain range in northwestern Utah.
• Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are found at several Utah locations, including Utah County, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the North Slope of the Uinta Mountains, Desolation Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument.
The desert bighorn are, by nature, timid animals, preferring remote seclusion to hectic traffic, and are therefore more difficult to locate.
The greatest number of animals are found in the southeastern part of Utah, in units such as Potash, Dirty Devil, Little Rock, San Juan and Kaiparowits.
These sheep, said Bates, come from an original herd that survived the crash of sheep numbers back in the early uranium days in the 1950s and 1960s, and diseases brought in by domestic sheep.
For years, the number of desert sheep increased, eventually getting to a point where there were enough sheep to begin a transplant program.
About five years ago, said Bates, numbers started to stabilize.
"Right now the sheep are holding their own. We've had a few disease issues. Also, all the outdoor recreation going on in the area and with the oil and gas exploration, the sheep are being pushed into suboptimal habitat."
Which, he continued, "Means if we are not vigilant in our management of this species, we could loose it."
Currently, there are roughly 3,500 desert bighorn and 1,500 Rocky Mountain and California bighorn in the state. The desert bighorn are the smaller of the sheep. A desert ram will weigh about 125 pounds, a Rocky Mountain ram about 250 and a California ram somewhere between the two.
What has been one of the most viewed herds, the Town Herd is often seen on the outskirts of Moab near the entrance to Arches National Park.
Some days upward of a dozen sheep can be seen feeding along the highway, and it all began with one ewe.
In 1985, six sheep were trapped in Canyonlands National Park and released in a remote area of Arches. Within days a single ewe with a small lamb left the group deep inside the park and was spotted along the road north of town. The next year she showed up with a new lamb and a yearling, and the next with a male suitor.
Over time more ewes came, followed by more rams.
Those planning to attend one of the two festivals are encouraged to dress for the out-of-doors and bring along binoculars or a spotting scope along with snacks, drinks and a camera.For information on the Moab event contact Brent Stettler at 435-613-3707 or visit [email protected], and for information on the Provo event call the DWR's Central Region office at 801-491-5678.
E-mail: [email protected]