SPRINGDALE — Bighorn sheep populations are thriving in Southern Utah, and initiatives to maintain healthy herds are underway by wildlife advocates.
In November, 17 bighorn sheep were captured and GPS-collared in Zion National Park to monitor population density.
The effort, performed collectively by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Zion National Park, the Zion Forever Project and the Utah chapter of Four North American Wild Sheep, was an effort to reduce the risk of a catastrophic pneumonia outbreak.
“Contact between wild and domestic sheep can infect a bighorn sheep herd, resulting in large scale die-off and years of reduced lambing,” a news release by Zion Forever Project states. “One of the risk factors for die-offs to occur is a dense and expanding bighorn sheep herd like the herd living in Zion.”
A number of sheep from the herd in Zion will be captured beginning Tuesday and transplanted to the San Juan County area to bolster the sheep herd there, while also reducing density of the Zion herd and promoting genetic diversity of animals throughout the state.
The technically challenging capture and transplant of the sheep will be conducted by a helicopter crew, navigating aircraft above the park’s vertical sandstone features as animals are netted from the air.
“Protecting the health of these iconic animals is a priority and our responsibility as stewards of Zion,” Zion Forever Project Director Mark Preiss said. “The surprise of spotting strong and healthy bighorn sheep is part of the Zion visitor experience – an experience we want to share with generations of visitors yet to come.”
More than 600 bighorn sheep roam the wilderness areas in the east side of the park.
“Most visitors who drive through the park through the east side are lucky enough to spot them,” park spokesman John Marciano told St. George News Monday.
Visitors to Zion can help the herds flourish by contributing to Zion Forever Project’s “Adopt-a-Bighorn” program, which provides critical funding for the transplant operation and other projects, including the collection of data from the GPS-collared sheep to improve bighorn management in the park.
Over 4,000 park visitors have supported the project by purchasing and “adopting” a stuffed animal sheep from Zion Forever Project at the Zion National Park Store or online.