The Utah Division of Wildlife announced in a Nov. 30 press release that the agency is partnering with a private company to establish a “nursery” to raise a herd of desert bighorn sheep which can be used to grow and support wild populations of the species in the state. The nursery will be located on about 1,800 acres of land within the Skyrider Wilderness Ranch in Duchesne County. The property is a ranch, farm, and wildlife refuge owned by the Utah-based essential oil company Young Living.
“When early settlement came to Utah, the bighorn sheep were the one of the most abundant ungulates on the landscape… more abundant than even our mule deer here,” said Riley Peck, once-in-a-lifetime species coordinator for the DWR. When settlers brought domestic livestock to Utah, those animals brought diseases that spread to wild sheep and drastically reduced their numbers. The wild sheep also had to compete with domestic sheep for forage and space; hunting and habitat loss also contributed to the decline of wild sheep in Utah.
“Whenever you remove something natural from the landscape, the benefits and impacts are hard to estimate,” Peck said, explaining that while it’s hard to quantify the full function of bighorn sheep in the ecosystem, their role is significant.
Bighorn sheep are native to North America, and appear to be often depicted in petroglyphs and pictographs. Historical records indicate a huge number of sheep when early European explorers came to Utah. The DWR estimates there are now about 1,500 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and 2,800 desert bighorn sheep in Utah.
The two species of wild sheep are very similar except in the habitat and diet to which they’ve adapted. Desert bighorn sheep are a little smaller and more brown in color than their Rocky Mountain cousins, Peck said, but they would be difficult for an untrained observer to distinguish. However, the desert sheep are much better adapted to the warm dry conditions of their habitat than the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
The DWR has a goal of establishing and maintaining sustainable populations of bighorn sheep across the state, and uses “transplants” to augment and/or diversify wild herds. Often this means removing sheep from areas where a herd has grown too large for its habitat to support and relocating them to suitable habitat where there are no sheep or where the existing population is small. According to a 2018 DWR Utah bighorn sheep Statewide management plan, Rocky Mountain bighorns were first translocated in Utah in 1966, and desert bighorns were first translocated in Utah in 1973.
“Since restoration efforts began, over 1,200 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and over 1,000
desert bighorns have been released in areas of historical habitat,” the document says.
There is an existing nursery for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep on Antelope Island, but the DWR has had difficulty finding a suitable location for a desert bighorn sheep nursery.
Skyrider Wilderness Ranch, according to a description found on the Young Living website, is an 18,000-acre parcel used to grow botanicals, primarily a plant called einkorn, for research and production of the company’s essential oils. It’s also a working elk and bison ranch, and 10,880 acres of it are managed as an easement to conservation nonprofit The Nature Conservancy as a wildlife refuge. The multi-level marketing company has farms all over the world. The DWR had been looking for a location for a desert bighorn sheep nursery for several years. DWR biologists in Duchesne County had a working relationship with biologists at Skyrider Ranch, and the idea to use part of the ranch for the nursery grew out of that relationship.
The area of the planned nursery has perennial water; is secluded from other sheep populations that could spread disease; and has the right conditions for sheep to thrive, qualities that the DWR struggled to find when looking among public land areas for an appropriate location. Peck said that while collaborating with a private entity can be challenging, Young Living has been a fantastic partner.
The Utah DWR hopes to start the project with 50 sheep from a healthy Nevada population. The nursery can support a herd of about 150 sheep. Once the population is healthy and stable, the DWR may draw from that population to augment existing wild herds, or to reintroduce sheep to historic habitat.
“Sheep are highly social animals,” and will seek out and join existing sheep herds on their own, Peck said. “They adapt and participate in the existing herd dynamics almost immediately.”
Before those translocations can happen, though, the nursery herd has to be firmly established. Peck said that likely will take at least five years. Once the agency is ready to translocate sheep from the nursery, areas in Grand County could be candidates to receive some of those individuals.
“Certainly we have desert bighorn sheep in Grand County,” Peck said. “Where you already have desert bighorn sheep, it makes sense to supplement those populations.” However, the agency is still years away from choosing translocation sites for the sheep. In a Science on Tap presentation in Moab on Dec. 14, wildlife biologist Dr. Joel Berger said that a bighorn sheep herd in Grand County called the Potash herd is the only one in the state that has not been manipulated by managers.
Grand County’s desert bighorn sheep often keep to remote locations, but in quieter times of the year they may be spotted in developed areas. On Dec. 4, a group of desert bighorn grazed along Highway 191 just north of the entrance to Arches National Park.
“People who have lived in or visited the Moab area for a long time may remember seeing bighorn sheep more regularly in that area,” said Pam Riddle, wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab. “Bighorn sheep are very sensitive to noise and activity. I would expect that as it quiets down in town over the winter, we may see them in this area more frequently. If you are lucky enough to see desert bighorn sheep, please help keep them happy and healthy by admiring them from afar and allow them to continue about their business undisturbed.”