With Love from Zion’s Bighorn Herd—and Their Keepers

Ongoing Project

In July 2018, Zion biologists issued a Press Release asking park visitors to report sightings of excessive coughing from Desert Bighorn sheep. Having just received word that a Zion Bighorn tested positive for a bacteria known to cause pneumonia, Zion’s Natural Resource team worried the spread of this disease could have catastrophic consequences. Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae has been the primary agent associated with major die offs in other herds across western North America. With one of the strongest Desert Bighorn populations in the west, the Zion sheep entered a new period of risk, especially to newborn lambs.

As with other species, research and monitoring are essential tools for long-term wildlife protection. With funding made possible through 2018 and 2019 Field Guide supporters, Zion biologists were able to detect the pneumonia early and closely monitor the herd health. In early 2019, an additional 21 Bighorn sheep received GPS collars, bringing the total number of traceable animals in the greater Zion herd to more than 50. With Forever Project support, the Zion team tracked pregnant ewes and newly-birthed lambs throughout 2018 and 2019 to watch for early symptoms of disease. Thankfully, symptoms in lambs have been minimal and sporadic, and to this point, the team has yet to record a single death from pneumonia.

Through this signature gift to the park, the Forever Project family gave the Zion team tools needed at a critical moment in the Bighorn herd’s history. Zion leaders are establishing best practices for monitoring the biology unique to Desert Bighorn sheep, and are filling major gaps in collective knowledge. They are partnering with researchers from Utah State University and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to document and disseminate knowledge helpful in protecting other herds. With continued support in 2020, Field Guide funding will empower the park to continue to perform crucial research into the future.