Bighorn sheep to be reintroduced in mountains near Beaver, irking some sheepherders

A desert bighorn sheep stands on a sandstone cliff in Zion National Park, date not specified | Photo by NaturesThumbPrint/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Against the wish of some sheepherders in Southern Utah, state officials approved a plan Tuesday to release about 50 desert bighorn sheep in some mountains in Beaver County.

David Smedley, a biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, speaks at the Utah Wildlife Board meeting about the plan to bring bighorn sheep to the Mineral Mountains in Beaver County, May 31, 2018, Salt Lake City, Utah | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Natural Resources, St. George News

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will release the sheep in the Mineral Mountains, less than 20 miles west of Beaver. At a Utah Wildlife Board meeting on May 31, DWR biologist David Smedley said the purpose of reintroducing bighorn sheep in the mountains would be to bring the animals back to a place where they had historically roamed.

The plan would bring approximately 50 sheep from Zion National Park or Nevada’s Muddy Mountains and drop them off in the middle of the Mineral Mountains near Granite Peak, which is the range’s highest point. State officials hope the herd will grow to about 175 animals. GPS collars will be placed on the sheep to track their movements. The sheep could be brought to the Mineral Mountains as soon as this fall, Smedley said.

DWR officials also hope to manage hunting permits with the bighorn sheep in the Mineral Mountains and allow people to view them in the wild, Smedley said. Ewe hunting, or female sheep hunting, may be periodically permitted to control the herd’s population.

“Bighorn sheep really are an icon in the west. There really are a lot of people who want to go out and view these animals, so for us, it’s important to provide an opportunity where people can go out and view these amazing animals in their natural ranges.”

Within the area where DWR officials hope the sheep will remain, there are only grazing lands for cattle. However, some sheepherders worry the bighorn sheep could travel out of the boundaries, push domestic sheep out of their grazing lands and spread diseases to domestic sheep. The nearest domestic sheep grazing area is 15 miles away from the the drop site at Granite Peak, Smedley said.

A map shows the area where bighorn sheep will be reintroduced to the Mineral Mountains, perhaps as soon as this fall. | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Natural Resources, St. George News

Kendall Benson, a biologist and woolgrower from Parowan, told DWR officials his biggest problem with the plan is that bighorn sheep are not known to stay within hand-drawn lines because they’re nomadic animals.

“(Bighorn sheep) don’t stay in isolated places – they move, sometimes up to 100 miles,” Benson said. “I’ve seen sheep with my own eyes on the golf course in Page, Arizona. Where did they come from? The Zion unit? San Juan? Somewhere in Arizona? They obviously move and they move a lot.”

When the bighorn sheep don’t stay within the boundary, they impact the livelihood of sheep herders across Southern Utah, Benson said.

While some spoke in favor of the plan to reintroduce a native species to the area, Benson was among the many passionate ranchers, sheepherders and members of the public who spoke out against the plan. Scott Stubs, a rancher in northern Iron County, said he wants there to be legislation to protect ranchers’ rights before a plan like this is established.

“They are setting a nuclear bomb right in the middle of us and saying we’ll hide the button,” Stubbs said about the plan to bring sheep to the Mineral Mountains.

There are protections in the plan, like placing fencing in certain areas to separate domestic sheep from the bighorn sheep, DWR director Mike Fowlks said. If sheep leave their designated area, “they’re going to die,” and the DWR will address any problems with conflicts domestic sheep if any arise.

“The risks of the bighorn sheep on the Mineral (Mountains) are lower than many of our existing populations,” Fowlks said. “Every one of our 4,500 have some level of risk. And we as a state agency have to manage with that risk and we’re willing to do that. If our goal was to manage with zero risk, then we’d be out of the sheep business.”

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  • Kyle L. June 8, 2018 at 11:07 am

    How many federal jobs do you think this will create? There will need to be at least three “monitors” and don’t forget the people building and watching these, sheep proof, fences. What a load of crap!

  • Kilroywashere June 8, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Hey, If my tax dollars can pay for Obama phones, not worried about cost of upkeep. The Bighorn sheep were there from the beginning . Come on, nuclear bomb comparison so overboard. Just work together and just consider we’re talking 50 animals with GPS collars. This land is your land, this land is my land.

  • PlanetU June 8, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    Reintroduce then hunt, typical…….

  • outdoorwife June 8, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    Amazingly enough, it is true that comprehensive and conscientious grazing sheep and/or cattle actually improves the range and helps minimize fire potential by reducing fuels and ends up turning grass and sunshine into food and fiber. Most ranchers use allotments for only weeks out a year, augmenting grazing of their own private lands. We do pay to graze, but also along with-often at our own cost-improve water sources, fencing, and habitat improvement for all animals, like the Sage Grouse. We love animals-that’s why we are ranchers and farmers! There are just too many unanswered questions in regards to Bighorn Sheep. While Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (MOvi) is suspected to come from domestic sheep, studies are not conclusive. It is thought other animals like deer, elk, and bison also are carriers. A number of different pathogens are often detected during Bighorn Sheep die-off events. (USGS Paul Cross, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center) Doemstic sheep herds surrounding the Mineral Mountain unit have tested positive for MOvi, yet DWR is still planning on transplanting Desert Bighorn into the area, at the cost of some $1000 per sheep. Nevada Department of Wildlife studies show 14 out of 19 Desert Bighorn herd units test positive for MOvi, with 4 testing unknown and only one testing negative. Male Bighorn Sheep, being nomadic in nature, will travel upwards of 100 miles in search of new range, especially during mating season. They also rely on this “new DNA” for herd survival, needing DNA diversity to insure sustainability. Isolated herds of 50 or less, will incur die-offs more readily, especially in conditions such as drought. So, as Woolgrowers, we can keep our sheep in our own pastures 24/7/365-but a traveling male Bighorn swinging through the area, takes a drink from a trough currently used by domestic sheep that are positive for MOvi, and he transports the diesease to his new herd…and the Sheepmen get the blame. Do we even know…perhaps MOvi is actually designed by nature to ensure high density populations of Desert Bighorn are kept in check? Like the colonies of Prairie Dogs that when their numbers peak, contract the plague and suffer a die-off, then steadily rebuild. I’d just like to see more information and assurances that we as Utah taxpayers aren’t being duped-trying to support an unsustainable Bighorn Herd on the Minerals.

  • Lee Saunders June 11, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    Hey, if our good friend, Scott Pruitt, can blow through taxpayer money without a whimper, then I’m all for relocating a few Big Horn sheep. Spending taxpayer dollars must not really be such a problem.

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