ST. GEORGE — Against the wish of some sheepherders in Southern Utah, state officials approved a plan Tuesday to release about 50 desert bighorn sheep in some mountains in Beaver County.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources will release the sheep in the Mineral Mountains, less than 20 miles west of Beaver. At a Utah Wildlife Board meeting on May 31, DWR biologist David Smedley said the purpose of reintroducing bighorn sheep in the mountains would be to bring the animals back to a place where they had historically roamed.
The plan would bring approximately 50 sheep from Zion National Park or Nevada’s Muddy Mountains and drop them off in the middle of the Mineral Mountains near Granite Peak, which is the range’s highest point. State officials hope the herd will grow to about 175 animals. GPS collars will be placed on the sheep to track their movements. The sheep could be brought to the Mineral Mountains as soon as this fall, Smedley said.
DWR officials also hope to manage hunting permits with the bighorn sheep in the Mineral Mountains and allow people to view them in the wild, Smedley said. Ewe hunting, or female sheep hunting, may be periodically permitted to control the herd’s population.
“Bighorn sheep really are an icon in the west. There really are a lot of people who want to go out and view these animals, so for us, it’s important to provide an opportunity where people can go out and view these amazing animals in their natural ranges.”
Within the area where DWR officials hope the sheep will remain, there are only grazing lands for cattle. However, some sheepherders worry the bighorn sheep could travel out of the boundaries, push domestic sheep out of their grazing lands and spread diseases to domestic sheep. The nearest domestic sheep grazing area is 15 miles away from the the drop site at Granite Peak, Smedley said.
Kendall Benson, a biologist and woolgrower from Parowan, told DWR officials his biggest problem with the plan is that bighorn sheep are not known to stay within hand-drawn lines because they’re nomadic animals.
“(Bighorn sheep) don’t stay in isolated places – they move, sometimes up to 100 miles,” Benson said. “I’ve seen sheep with my own eyes on the golf course in Page, Arizona. Where did they come from? The Zion unit? San Juan? Somewhere in Arizona? They obviously move and they move a lot.”
When the bighorn sheep don’t stay within the boundary, they impact the livelihood of sheep herders across Southern Utah, Benson said.
While some spoke in favor of the plan to reintroduce a native species to the area, Benson was among the many passionate ranchers, sheepherders and members of the public who spoke out against the plan. Scott Stubs, a rancher in northern Iron County, said he wants there to be legislation to protect ranchers’ rights before a plan like this is established.
“They are setting a nuclear bomb right in the middle of us and saying we’ll hide the button,” Stubbs said about the plan to bring sheep to the Mineral Mountains.
There are protections in the plan, like placing fencing in certain areas to separate domestic sheep from the bighorn sheep, DWR director Mike Fowlks said. If sheep leave their designated area, “they’re going to die,” and the DWR will address any problems with conflicts domestic sheep if any arise.
“The risks of the bighorn sheep on the Mineral (Mountains) are lower than many of our existing populations,” Fowlks said. “Every one of our 4,500 have some level of risk. And we as a state agency have to manage with that risk and we’re willing to do that. If our goal was to manage with zero risk, then we’d be out of the sheep business.”
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