Utah wildlife officials are eager to restore bighorn sheep, the West’s most coveted big game species for sport hunting, to native ranges that are not used by domestic sheep.
But a proposal to relocate wild sheep into Beaver County’s Mineral Mountains has woolgrowers on high alert with concerns that such projects could displace their operations.
The fear isn’t about competition for forage but rather about disease transmission and how a bighorn die-off could be used to push sheep ranchers off their grazing allotments.
“There are a lot of unknowns out there, and the [domestic] sheep are getting blamed for [other] die-offs,” said grower Matt Mickel, who has sheep about 10 miles west of the Mineral range. ”I don’t see any advantage to putting [bighorns] there. I don’t see a scenario I would be comfortable with.”
The Division of Wildlife Resources has promised to take every precaution to ensure the bighorns, which are famous for roaming far and wide, have no contact with their domestic cousins.
“We will kill any wild sheep that crosses the Beaver River,” Utah Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike Styler told lawmakers earlier this month. “Any time we have wild sheep anywhere close, we kill them if they wander where they shouldn’t be. We abhor that, and that’s why we won’t even look at a place [for bighorn sheep relocation] that is near domestic sheep.”
The Beaver, a Sevier River tributary, wraps around the range to the south and west.
The wildlife board is to consider the project, which drew spirited discussion at all five regional advisory council (RAC) meetings this month, Thursday in Salt Lake City.
At the Northeast RAC meeting, hunter Kevin Norman gave the proposal two thumbs up.
“Sheep hunting has kind of been a rich man’s game,” he said. “This just affords more opportunity for the average Joe like myself to have an opportunity hunting these creatures.”
Chances of drawing a bighorn tag are remote, less than one in 100 for a first-time entrant, while deep-pocketed hunters can buy “conservation” tags at a steep price at auction.
Revenue from these auctions pays for the capture and relocation of big game, as well habitat improvements. It costs about $1,000 each to capture, collar and release bighorns and other wild ungulates.
Bighorns were abundant in Utah at the time pioneers arrived in the mid-19th century, but their numbers soon plummeted from overhunting and loss of range to wool producers. Since 1975, state officials have been translocating wild sheep into suitable habitat as part of a program to revive big game species, but they have always stressed they don’t want to achieve that goal at the expense of the domestic sheep industry.
“We are working on an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the federal agencies to adhere to our statewide [bighorn sheep] management plan. We identify areas where bighorns are found and which procedures will be followed if they wander off,” said Bill Bates, DWR’s assistant director. “We have always had a proactive approach working with the livestock industry. It is not our intent to put anyone out of business.”
But the Utah Wool Growers Association “adamantly” opposes the Mineral Mountains project without further research and a management plan that would hold the livestock industry harmless.
“Intentions don’t hold water,” Executive Director Sierra Nelson wrote in an email. Her group supports multiple use of public lands and does not want to be at odds with land managers, wildlife officials and hunters.
“However, when sheep producers’ entire cultural constructs, financial prospects, and commitment to providing natural, sustainable, and local food and fiber for the country and the world face potential devastating harm, we cannot help but consider this proposed plan to be very disconcerting,” the Paradise grower wrote.
She does not believe bighorns were historically present in these mountains, but Bates said research shows desert and Rocky Mountain bighorns once lived in every river drainage and mountain range in Utah.
“The are native,” he said.
DWR envisions establishing a herd of 175 bighorns in a 100,000-acre area in the Mineral Mountains. With such a low density, about one sheep per 600 acres, agency biologists hope rams won’t be inclined to wander in search of mates.
The plan is to release 50 bighorns, mostly ewes. The exact number will depend on how many Nevada makes available, probably from the Muddy Mountains.
“There may be some initial wandering,” Bates said, “but there will be radio collars on those, and we will remove them if we have to.”