This young desert bighorn sheep was trapped and moved off the Zion Unit in Southern Utah.

It was a short flight. Only a few minutes from takeoff to landing for 26 desert bighorn sheep. Then began an overland journey that took the sheep from a desert landscape near Zion National Park to a staging area and then by trailer to Knock Eye Dome in the South San Juan area.

The plan was to net, hogtie and move 40 desert bighorn sheep off the Zion Unit in Southern Utah. After two day of tracking, 11 were caught on the first day and 15 on the second—14 ewes, 6 rams and 6 lambs.

Biologists took blood samples, tagged and fitted sheep with radio collars.

Still, that’s 26 fewer sheep from an overpopulated herd ripe for disease. And that’s 26 sheep that will begin a new life in the Knock Eye Dome area in the South San Juan area. 

There are, says Jason Nicholes, wildlife biologist in the Southern Region for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, “simply too many sheep in the unit. It is a healthy herd, though, which surprised us. We did a disease profile last year and it came out better than we expected, given their close proximity to domestic sheep.’’ 

Domestic sheep spread diseases, particularly pneumonia, which wild sheep are more susceptible to catching,  and other diseases that spread easily within a wild herd. Too many wild sheep increases the possibility of contact with domestic sheep.

Sheep were netted and then placed in slings and flown back to staging area.

Earlier this month wild sheep were trapped and moved off Antelope Island. There, too, biologists were unable to meet expectations after two days. Crews even returned for a third try. The plan was to capture 40, but final count was only 27.

The terrain made trapping very difficult, says Phil Douglass, conservation outreach manager. 

“The second the sheep heard the helicopter, they ran into the cracks and crevasses. We used firecrackers to try and get them out, but once out they’d turn around and run back. After the first day the sheep were very skittish,’’ he adds. 

The Antelope Island sheep were moved to Oak Creek near Oak City. 

There was also another wild sheep transfer back in December. Nevada Fish and Wildlife gave Utah 49 desert bighorn sheep from an overpopulated Valley of Fire herd. Those sheep were moved to a remote area near Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell. In 2012, Utah biologists also relocated 50 sheep from Nevada into the Kaiparowits East Unit. 

Bighorn sheep have a long history in Utah. Early rock art by Native Americans depict animals with large curved horns. Father Escalante wrote in his journal that the abundance of wild sheep tracks in Utah “are like those of great herds of domestic sheep.’’

In the 1960s, because of over hunting, disease and predation, Utah’s sheep population was down to a few desert bighorn in the San Juan area. Through an intense rebuilding program by the DWR and supporting hunting groups, the sheep numbers have recovered. Currently the total Utah sheep population—desert, Rocky Mountain and California bighorn—is estimated to be around 4,500 animals. 

Rocky Mountain and California bighorn are found in the northern areas of the state and the desert bighorn mainly in the southern areas. 

Desert bighorn get their name from the fact that they have been able to adapt to the lack of water in desert areas.

Where Utah once held only a few of the majestic bighorn sheep, it now has a population strong enough to allow for capturing and transplanting the sheep to new areas suited for the sheep. 

Utah’s sheep recovery program is considered to be a real wildlife success story.