In Utah, a Desert Bighorn Sheep “Nursery” Planned for Private Ranch
Utah is employing an innovative but potentially troubling new approach to wild-sheep conservation.
The state’s Department of Wildlife Resources announced last month that nearly 1,800 acres of privately owned rimrock canyon and plateau in northeastern Utah will be used as a sort of incubator for desert bighorn sheep that will be reared there and planted elsewhere in the state, and perhaps the wider West.
The DWR announced the partnership with Young Living, the multi-level marketing company that specializes in essential oils and owns the SkyRider Wilderness Ranch in Duchesne County.
A portion of the SkyRider Ranch will be enclosed with sheep-proof (and maybe more importantly, predator-proof) fencing and wildlife officials will work to ensure that desert bighorns on the property aren’t exposed to the pathogens that have chronically crippled wild sheep bands around North America.
The DWR is partnering with the Nevada Department of Wildlife to acquire the initial desert bighorn sheep for the nursery herd. The nursery area can support roughly 150 desert sheep, says Riley Peck, Utah DWR’s once-in-a-lifetime species coordinator. Hunting will not be allowed on the property.
While this is the first “nursery” for desert bighorn sheep, it’s hardly the first time land has been set aside to propagate wild sheep for the purpose of supplementing or seeding new herds elsewhere. In Utah, Antelope Island State Park has served a similar function for Rocky Mountain bighorns for years. In Montana, Wild Horse Island in Flathead Lake has served as an incubator for Rocky Mountain bighorns in Montana and other Western states. Wild Horse State Park produced the world-record Rocky Mountain ram, a testament to not only the quality of its habitat and gene pool, and also to protections provided both by its geography and its management.
And in Idaho, a conservation easement finalized in 2020 on nearly 3,000 acres of steep, remote country on the northern end of Hells Canyon serves a similar purpose, allowing several dozen bighorn sheep to escape predation and infection and lamb in relatively secure, intact habitat.
But, outside of Mexico, the practice of providing natal zones for desert bighorns is novel. Desert bighorn bands have been particularly vulnerable to disease and predation, partly because their habitat of dry canyons, mesas, and endless arroyos is especially inhospitable during drought. And conditions that stress their habitat can make all sheep vulnerable to pathogens and predation.
The SkyRider Ranch provides reliable water resources and year-round habitat for desert bighorns, says Peck.
“We are really excited about this area and the opportunity it will provide to grow our desert bighorn populations in Utah,” Peck said. “There have been some disease issues with our bighorn sheep populations in the past, and this fenced area will provide a place for our herds to safely grow. This nursery herd allows us to have long-term viability of desert bighorn sheep in Utah. Whenever we have a need to supplement or create new populations in the state, we will have our own internal bighorn sheep population and can be self-sufficient in maintaining healthy herds.”
Peck notes that Utah has about 2,800 head of desert bighorns and another 1,500 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
The traditional method of either supplementing ailing sheep bands or starting new ones in vacant habitat has been to trap wild sheep on open ranges elsewhere and release them in the restoration areas. But the Young Living property isn’t exactly open range, raising questions about whether the donor herd will be savvy to predators and capable of surviving in habitats that aren’t as carefully managed as those inside the SkyRanch fence. And it raises questions about whether wildlife managers are using captive populations instead of doing the hard and sometimes futile work of improving native sheep habitat.
“Trap-and-transplant is the preferred alternative to raising bighorns in a propagation/brood/nursery facility,” says Clay Brewer, conservation director for Wild Sheep Foundation. “Having said that, these are not normal times, particularly when it comes to bighorn health issues. This effort is promising because the facility provides for intensive management or nearly complete control for things like populations, timing of releases, herd health management, monitoring, and predator control.”
Brewer noted that wild sheep conservation efforts have traditionally been focused on public land, since sheep and sheep hunting is synonymous with sweeping Western landscapes dominated by federal and—in Canada—crown ownership. But he says going forward “there is much greater potential [for sheep conservation] on private lands than on public lands. In my view, private lands and landowners are the single most important factor for the continued success of wild sheep restoration throughout the West.”
But increasing focus on private lands raises questions about equitable access to wild sheep that—measured in interest, passion, and monetary investment—have the highest perceived value of any of our wildlife resources.
“This [private-land nursery] wasn’t our first option, more like our last,” says Brewer. “But kudos to the Utah DWR, to not only consider but pursue the opportunity. It opens a lot of opportunities for conservation work going forward in Utah. I see bighorn sheep herds on private land in Utah’s future, which is a huge benefit in light of the fact that there are a lot more opportunities to expand herds on private vs public lands.”