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Zion National Park bighorn sheep herd grows too fast

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Posted at 11:04 PM, Feb 24, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-25 01:04:19-05

ZION NATIONAL PARK -- The desert bighorn sheep are a major draw for tourists visiting  Zion National Park, but wildlife biologists say the herd may be getting too big and are considering a transplant.

There are an estimated 500 desert bighorn sheep roaming in and around the park, but about 40 years ago they were almost wiped out because of excessive hunting. At that time the Utah Division of Wildlife resources used transplanting efforts to bring herds to the area.

“We actually started this population, collaboratively with the park in 1973,” said UDWR bighorn sheep program manager Dustin Schaible. “We brought animals in from Nevada, and into the park, and that’s where the population grew from.”

Since then the park and DWR have been monitoring the population. Schaible said it’s reached a point at which they’re concerned about the herd’s safety.

“They’re particularly at risk because they’re very vulnerable to this respiratory illness,” said Zion National Park wildlife biologist Cassie Waters. “You can see extreme die-offs and population declines with this particular respiratory illness.”

To keep that from happening, park officials and the UDWR are considering a plan that would transplant up to 100 sheep, thinning out the Zion herd and taking away that risk of contracting disease. It’s one that’s routinely done throughout the country, but because this area is unique, the herds roaming through several different properties, it’s one that has to be carefully considered.

“Through this process we will look at all different management alternatives,” Waters said.  “And the impacts of each of those and determine whether or not this action can take place.”

Park managers say the transplant wouldn’t affect sightseeing. They are still taking public comment on the plan until March 19.