State board approves plan to up bighorn sheep populations

Respiratory disease has taken a toll on Utah herds

A desert bighorn sheep photographed in Zion National Park. Photo courtesy of Phil Tuttle/UDWR

The 10-year statewide management plan for bighorn sheep in Utah was approved in November 2018, and on Oct. 3 the Utah Wildlife Board approved plans for each of the specific regions in Utah that have bighorn sheep populations, according to Faith Jolley of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Eighteen unit management plans were approved during the meeting: 11 for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and seven for desert bighorn sheep. The combined population objective for these 18 units is a total of 8,850 bighorn sheep. Currently, there are approximately 4,150 bighorn sheep in Utah, and the specific unit management plans include proposals for how to increase the population in each area in a sustainable way, wrote Jolley in an email.

“There has been some struggle with our bighorn sheep populations recently because of respiratory disease,” Jace Taylor, the bighorn sheep and mountain goat biologist for DWR, said. “Part of our objective is to expand bighorn sheep populations where possible, and to maintain the overall population in a sustainable and healthy way across Utah to provide quality opportunities for wildlife viewing and hunting.”

The number of sheep approved for each unit varies, due to the available habitat, water supply and necessary space needed to separate the animals if they get sick. Habitat projects are also included in some of the plans, which will help provide additional suitable habitat for bighorn populations. DWR biologists also plan to regularly test each of Utah’s bighorn sheep populations for respiratory disease.

One of the specific units included in the unit management plans is Antelope Island. The bighorn sheep population on the island experienced a disease outbreak in November and the entire population there was removed. Part of the management plan for this specific area includes Antelope Island State Park building a fence on the south end of the island before the DWR reintroduces a healthy population of bighorn sheep to the island.

DWR biologists hope to release about 35 wild bighorn sheep on the island in January and will closely monitor the population for disease. They hope to eventually grow a healthy population of 125 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep on the island.

Closer to home, DWR would like to increase the bighorn population in Book Cliffs South from 230 to 450 and from 220 to 300 in La Sal, Potash/South Cisco.