Desert bighorn sheep roam some of the most inhospitable land in canyon country. Their diet consists of the same spiny shrubs that scrape the shins of hikers. Once feared to be nearing extinction, the desert bighorn is making a tentative comeback in southeast Utah due to reintroduction efforts by the National Park Service. With one of the few remaining native herds, Canyonlands has been a vital source of animals for this program.
Accounts from early explorers tell us that more than two million desert bighorn once roamed the southwest. By the late 1800s however, bighorn sheep had disappeared or declined in many areas. Bighorn sheep are extremely vulnerable to diseases from livestock. Domestic sheep introduced pathogens like scabies (an ear mite) and anthrax (a bacterial disease), and herd after herd of wild sheep were decimated. Early explorers, settlers, and trophy hunters also killed bighorns. Increased competition with domesticated cattle and sheep for food didn’t help the situation. In 1975, Utah’s population numbered around 1,000 sheep.
When Canyonlands was established in 1964, there were approximately 100 bighorn sheep remaining in the park. To protect these animals, in the 1970s the park phased out grazing allotments within park boundaries. The Bureau of Land Management, whose lands border the park, limited grazing leases to cattle only, which lessened the risk of exposure to disease from domestic sheep – probably the most important step in preserving bighorn populations.
In the early 1980s, biologists began relocating sheep from the growing population in Canyonlands in order to establish new herds. Since sheep are poor dispersers, this is the only way to return them to their historic ranges. To accomplish this, park staff captured sheep in nets fired from helicopters, then staff assess the sheep's health and age and transport suitable animals to a relocation area.
Since the program began, sheep have been reestablished in Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Sheep relocated to the San Rafael Swell west of Canyonlands have created two herds totaling more than 600 animals. Today, the bighorn population in Utah is estimated at 3,000 animals. There are roughly 350 sheep in Canyonlands, with separate herds in each of the districts.
Though restoration efforts appear to be working, increased human activity and development continue to threaten the desert bighorn sheep. For the remaining herds to survive, intensive management and conservation measures may be necessary. The protection of undeveloped land and wilderness areas is key to the species’ survival. Canyonlands will continue to play a large role in this effort.
Last updated: December 15, 2017