State wildlife officials have approved a controversial proposal to reintroduce desert bighorn sheep into a southern Utah mountain range over the objections of livestock growers who fear the presence of wild sheep could be leveraged to push domestic sheep off public lands.

“They are setting a nuclear bomb right in the middle of us and saying we’ll hide the button,” woolgrower Scott Stubbs told the Utah Wildlife Board last week. “I don’t think you can hide the button from the environmental movement.”

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources intends to release about 50 bighorn sheep this fall in Beaver County’s Mineral Mountains, between Milford and Beaver, with a goal of establishing a herd of 175 animals.

Board member Calvin Crandall, a Springville cattleman, cast the only vote against the plan.

Woolgrowers remain worried that a federal judge could order their flocks off public lands if wild sheep contract pneumonia or other diseases conceivably transmitted from domestic sheep.

DWR Director Mike Fowlks promised his agency will take every precaution, including lethal removal, to keep bighorns clear of woolgrowing operations.

“If those [wild] sheep leave the core area and get into domestics, they are going to die,” he told the ranchers at the meeting in Salt Lake City. “… We are not gong to allow that conflict to occur.”

The proposal has stirred passions on both sides because big-game hunters wait a lifetime or pay large sums to hunt desert bighorns, an opportunity available to only a few dozen lucky or wealthy hunters a year in Utah.

“I want to hunt bighorn sheep without a walker or oxygen tank attached,” said Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation. Hunting groups, including the Utah Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, are putting up the money to capture the wild sheep and improve habitat in the Mineral Mountains.

The bighorns will be released near Granite Peak, the range’s highest point, according to Jace Taylor, who coordinates DWR’s bighorn sheep and mountain goat programs.

“They will go where they feel safe and that’s why they want steep, rocky escape terrain,” he said Tuesday in an interview.

The Mineral Mountains are mostly public land used to graze and move cattle, which don’t conflict with desert bighorns. The nearest active sheep allotments are 6 to 10 miles away, although some of the Mineral cattle allotments could be exchanged for sheep.

“My main concern is the nomadic nature of desert bighorn sheep,” Parowan woolgrower Kendall Benson said. “They move sometimes as many as 100 miles looking for new territory, looking for additional sheep, especially during the breeding season.”

He and many other stock growers, including Crandall, insist the state must first negotiate a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with federal land managers that would hold woolgrowers harmless if disease afflicts wild sheep.

“There’s a conflict here, and the real issues aren’t being addressed. It’s not a matter of 100 sheep being put on public land,” Benson said. “It’s about my livelihood, it’s about other people’s livelihood when these sheep don’t stay within the determined boundary on a map.”

DWR has 40 years’ experience transplanting wild sheep with no problems, most recently in the Oak Creek Mountains just north of the Mineral Mountains five years ago, according to Fowlks.

“There’s a thriving population of bighorns there,” he said. “We are going to have our first hunt this year.”