Bighorn sheep in Virgin River Gorge rarely seen but numbers holding steady

This photo offered for illustration shows a desert bighorn sheep at Joshua Tree National Park, California | Photo by Magnus Kjaergaard, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — While traffic zooms by on Interstate 15 in the Virgin River Gorge, the native denizens of the canyon traverse steep cliffs above, rarely seen by the occupants of cars and trucks below.

Stock image | St. George News
Desert bighorn sheep | Stock image, St. George News

They are the desert bighorn sheep of the Virgin River Gorge, and while they are rarely seen by travelers, they are considered one of the most stable herds in Utah and Arizona.

“As far as the gorge is concerned, the population is actually doing just fine,” Arizona Game and Fish Department Field Supervisor Luke Thompson said.

The herd in the gorge — at least on the Arizona side — was re-established in the late 1960s to early 1970s, Thompson said, marking their return to what had always been their historical range.

“They were one of the original release sites,” Thompson said. “They’ve been there a long time. Those efforts were efforts to re-establish bighorn through historic ranges.”

The Virgin River Gorge herd did not cross over into Utah until the 1970s and ’80s, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Wildlife Biologist Jason Nicholes said, adding that the herd was augmented on the Utah side in the 1990s.

According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, petroglyph and pictograph depictions of Bighorn Sheep are the most common wildlife portrayed at archaeological sites | Photo by Don Gilman, St. George News
According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, petroglyph and pictograph depictions of bighorn sheep are the most common wildlife portrayed at archaeological sites, Tempi’Po’Op Trail, Santa Clara, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Don Gilman, St. George News

According to data from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, desert bighorn sheep have lived in the desert southwest – and much of the rest of the mountain west as well – for millennia. Figures of bighorn sheep are one of the most common petroglyphs found on the many panels in Washington County and Utah broadly.

The National Bighorn Sheep Center said desert bighorn sheep – or Ovis canadensis nelsoni – can grow to impressive sizes, with rams sometimes exceeding 220 pounds in weight and standing 38-42 inches at the shoulder. Ewes typically weigh less.

There are 12 distinct desert bighorn sheep populations in Utah. Three of those populations are growing and four are stable. Five are showing declines in populations.

The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources does an aerial survey by helicopter of the Virgin River Gorge herd every two years, Nicholes said. The next survey is expected to occur in the fall of 2016.

Adrian Salazar, of Beaver Dam, Arizona, said he remembers fondly looking for the animals on trips to St. George.

“It was always pretty fun, just looking around trying to find them,” Salazar said. “Then when we would, it would be surprising. It would be pretty cool to see the herds. That’s one thing I still look for when I go through the gorge, just because I’ve been doing it since I was little.”

He hasn’t seen the herd in years though, he said.

The main reason the herd is seen less frequently is that Arizona Game and Fish previously utilized the healthy herd to augment other herds in the state, Thompson said, effectively cutting its numbers in half.

Stock image | St. George News
Desert bighorn sheep | Stock image, St. George News

“What that means is we have captured bighorn sheep out of the gorge and took them to other places in the state to establish populations or augment existing populations,” Thompson said

The herd in the gorge currently stands at approximately 100 – 120 individuals. The augmentation efforts took place three years in a row during the mid-to-late 2000s, Thompson said, adding that the process removed approximately 90 animals from the gorge population.

The fact that Arizona Game and Fish removed such a large number is in itself a sign of how healthy the Virgin River Gorge population is, he said.

“Whenever we remove bighorn sheep from a population to augment other populations, we remove sheep from a healthy, robust population that has a high density typically and has a large number of animals that can support the removal,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the best bet for anyone interested in seeing the magnificent creatures would be to drive to the Virgin River Canyon Recreation Area – accessed via Exit 18 for Cedar Pocket on Interstate 15. Armed with a pair of binoculars, viewers can often catch glimpses of the sheep on the cliffs above the campground.

Hunting the herd is allowed, but it has very conservative restrictions. On the Utah side, only two “once in a lifetime” permits are given each year, while in Arizona, three hunting permits are issued each year.

Before the arrival of humans to North America, population estimates for all bighorn sheep is estimated at over 2 million. Following settlement of the continent by pioneers, the numbers of both Rocky Mountain and desert bighorn sheep fell sharply. The current population estimate for sheep managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is approximately 2,000 and has been considered stable for the past 10 years.


  • Utah Division of Wildlife Resources bighorn sheep management plan PDF
  • Arizona Game and Fish Department web page on bighorn sheep
  • National Bighorn Sheep Center website

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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  • .... August 5, 2016 at 8:22 am

    I think it’s a wonderful experience two see those magnificent animals in their habitat we should be so blessed. Praise the Lord

    • ladybugavenger August 5, 2016 at 12:40 pm

      Amen! ( even tho you are being sarcastic, I’m not 🙂

  • .... August 5, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Well as I see it, it seems that the lack of hope and the ability two decipher the true inner reasoning of someone’s comment has been misconstrued by the inability two see beyond the scope of someone’s present existence pertaining two the present status at the time of as a literal response two the thought of presenting a comment it seems that the narrowed sight of a impractical response seems two be reilliterated as a point of reference leading two an opinion of being somewhat irrelevant pertaining two the point of expressing the original opinion. which has been socially scandalized by a negative reasoning of a point of disengaging from the original point of view relating two the post in question. therefore as a responsive reaction two the negative point of view it seems that the level of being able to accept that the reasoning behind the point of responding means absolutely nothing. so in regards as to being sarcastic it would seem not so. so as a closing comments within the article I say . I will miss you ladybug it’s been a pleasure and I hope all goes well for you as you continue your life away from us. be good stay safe and take care of yourself you being here makes the world a better place.

    • ladybugavenger August 5, 2016 at 3:08 pm

      Praise the Lord!

      Dot, ewe almost made my i’s sweat.

  • .... August 5, 2016 at 7:23 pm


  • Foxyheart June 8, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    It irks me that they took the sheep out of the gorge and then say they are thriving and seldom seen. Used to see the almost every time we went through the gorge, not anymore. Haven’t see a one since they decimated this region.

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