From lions to lambs – Southern Utah’s diverse wildlife

ST. GEORGE — When March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb in Southern Utah, it sometimes means the latter is about to become someone’s lunch. Both mountain lions and desert bighorn sheep call this rugged desert landscape home. 

Mountain lion
Mountain lion in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, St. George News

Mountain lions can be found throughout Utah, with a number of them living in Zion National Park, the Pine Valley Mountains and the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Lura Snow, outreach coordinator for the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, said this is friendly country for mountain lions since there are no natural predators.

“Mountain lions are an apex predator,” Snow said. “The biggest threat to mountain lions is humans.”

Mountain lions take advantage of the rock crevices and caves within the Reserve for their dens. Kittens are born between April and September. Female mountain lions can produce up to six kittens per litter, although Snow said they typically only have one or two. 

About 75% of the food source for mountain lions is mule deer. Snow said mountain lions move on and off the Reserve throughout the year, following the migration of the deer.

“Where there is water and food available in these lower elevations during the winter, they’ll move down here,” Snow said. “The mountain lions just follow these migrations.”

Mountain lions will sometimes prey on desert bighorn sheep, although these animals are no longer found in the Reserve. Snow said the presence of domestic sheep, starting back in the mid-1800s, wiped out the desert bighorn sheep in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. Domestic sheep and goats carry diseases that desert bighorn sheep have not developed immunities for. 

Native American petroglyph of desert bighorn sheep, St. George, Utah, March 3, 2021 | Photo by Adele Park, St. George News

Historically, desert bighorn sheep have roamed all around this region for more than 12,000 years. Phil Tuttle, outreach manager at the Division of Wildlife Resources, said ancient Native Americans depicted desert bighorn sheep in many of their petroglyphs.

“There’s lots of petroglyphs and drawings on canyon walls,” Tuttle said. 

By the mid-1900s, the desert bighorn sheep had become locally extinct or “extirpated” from Zion National Park and adjacent areas. In an effort to boost the herd numbers, the Division of Wildlife Resources and the National Park Service began a reintroduction program in the early 1970s. Tuttle said while there have been some ups and downs, the program was ultimately successful. During the last aerial survey, Tuttle said more than 800 desert bighorn sheep were discovered living in and around Zion.

“Due to that, we have moved sheep,” Tuttle said. “Over 100 sheep have been transplanted off the Zion unit and taken to others in Southern Utah to augment new populations with historic habitat.” 

Collaring Desert Big Horn Sheep
Janice Stroud-Settles, Wildlife Biologist at Zion National Park, collaring a desert bighorn sheep, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Zion National Park, St. George News

Despite the rocky, difficult terrain, desert bighorn sheep manage to find enough food sources in the Zion Unit. Janice Stroud-Settles, a wildlife biologist at Zion National Park, said finding enough water is the biggest challenge. The herd drinks out of potholes in rocks that fill up with rain or snowmelt. 

“The potholes get really deep if we haven’t had snow or rain,” Stroud-Settles said. “Some of them have fallen in and then they can’t get out of these potholes.”

Visitors to Zion National Park frequently spot desert bighorn sheep climbing among the jagged rocks and gullies. One of the most dramatic times to do this is during mating season, also called the rut. Mating season happens in July and August. Male lambs, called rams, compete to reproduce with ewes, which are the females. The crashing sound of butting heads is quite dramatic, although the rams don’t usually fight to the death. 

The best place to get a glimpse of desert bighorn sheep in Zion National Park is between the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and Checkerboard Mesa. For safety’s sake, visitors are asked not to stop in the road to view the animals. There are a number of places where motorists can pull off to take photos or simply enjoy the exotic wildlife in Utah.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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