Even the best hikers feel humbled to watch desert bighorn sheep charge seemingly straight up the steep, sandstone cliffs of Southern Utah. Their incredible agility and balance is unmatched, helping them avoid predators such as mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes. It’s awe-inspiring to us desert travelers who possess strong hands for gripping, high-tech shoes and Google Earth for scouting out routes, that these animals can leap over crevasses and navigate narrow rock ledges few people would venture out onto, if we could even find them. That’s why we only spot desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in the roughest terrain on our tours.
Usually, our safari-style trips out into the desert are for the goal of photographing the remarkable landscapes of Utah, but sometimes they become actual wildlife safaris when we spot a herd of desert bighorn sheep. Most commonly, we get to see them at South Coyote Buttes, North Coyote Buttes (the Wave) or along the Cottonwood Canyon Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument where they climb down the steep Cockscomb to drink from the Paria River. Our guests also commonly spot the sheep during their vacations near the tunnel in the east section of Zion National Park.
Many visitors mistake the sheep for mountain goats, but there are no mountain goats in the southern half of Utah. There were an estimated 3,000 desert bighorn sheep in Utah in 2015, according to an article by myutahparks.com. That’s up from 1,000 in 1975. Information posted on Wikipedia states the number of desert bighorn sheep in North America in prehistoric times is unknown, but was likely in the tens of thousands. But it declined from the 1850s to the early 1900s because of excessive hunting, competition and diseases from domestic animals, loss of access to water and other human-induced habitat changes. In many areas, the bighorns disappeared altogether, though programs have reintroduced the sheep back into some of those places. For instance, the National Park Service worked with the Utah Department of Wildlife
Resources to bring 14 desert bighorn sheep back into the Zion area by 1978. The herd had grown to over 500 animals in 2018. About 50 Zion sheep were then moved to Bears Ears National Monument in 2017. Bighorn have done so well in Zion National Park that wildlife biologists are now concerned about the high population density. Perhaps the biggest risk is that as animals move into new territory, they might contact domestic sheep and goats and catch communicable diseases. Also, some desert bighorn sheep were moved in 2019 from Nevada to an area near Beaver, Utah, to help replace previous populations.
Spotting desert bighorn sheep is always awe-inspiring. It’s tempting to sneak in closer for photos, but be mindful of the animals and keep a good distance, both for your safety and to reduce stress to the animals. Desert bighorn sheep weigh between 105-300 pounds and can be seen in herds of various size. During the rut, rams fight for dominance, and the clashing of their horns can be heard echoing through canyon country up to a mile away, according to the book “Desert Life” by Karen Krebbs. Rams chase each other, kicking each other with their front legs and leaping headfirst while clashing horns – encounters that can last for hours but rarely produce serious injury or death. The young gestate for 6 months and one lamb is usually born in February or March. Females group together into nursing herds of other ewes, newborns and yearlings. Young rams grow up and leave those nursing herds, joining bachelor herds. Those bachelor herds disperse during the rut.
A fascination of any creature in this region is how they have adapted to live in the dry, hot, cold, harsh environment of the desert Southwest. Desert bighorn sheep can live with little or no permanent water. They can go up to a week without drinking at all and can obtain much of the moisture they need from the vegetation they eat. Their stomach and colon conserve moisture by producing dry feces and concentrated urine. Typical of desert animals, the sheep hunker in the shade during the hottest part of the day, but unlike most mammals, they are adapted to survive with a range of body temperatures which can fluctuate safely by +/- 5 degrees. Understanding these magnificent creatures and how they survive here only serves to increase appreciation for the animals. All of our knowledge, preparation and technology allows us to trek into the desert for a few hours where these animals are designed to thrive for a lifetime of 10-20 years.