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Earth Notes - Bighorn Sheep

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Bighorn Sheep

The sight of a bighorn sheep poised on a narrow canyon ledge is always breathtaking. Muscular and lithe, these hooved mammals are majestic symbols of wilderness. But not so long ago, these native sheep were a rare sighting indeed in much of the Southwest.

Desert and Rocky Mountain bighorns historically lived in most mountainous regions in the southwest. But by the 1950s disease and habitat change had caused them to lose their footing. Their numbers dipped to a low of about fifteen hundred in Arizona. They weren't faring much better in neighboring states.

Then hunters and wildlife managers stepped in. Transplanting sheep to places they once roamed has been their best tool. In the last fifty years, nearly eighteen hundred bighorns have been transplanted in Arizona alone.

Relocating sheep is a delicate operation. They're captured from helicopters, blindfolded, and released into new homes within 24 hours. The work usually is done in the cool of late fall. The animals are placed back in appropriate habitats with accessible water, good visibility, and plenty of escape terrain.

Bighorn sheep now populate places like Kanab Creek, Paria Plateau, and the slopes beside the San Juan River. They've bounced back in Zion and Canyonlands National Parks, and are thriving in the River and Virgin Mountains of southern Nevada. In Grand Canyon, a naturally reproducing herd numbers nearly a thousand.

Thanks to this concerted conservation work, the chances of a thrilling sighting of America's wild sheep are now better than they've been for decades.

-Rose Houk