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Bighorn "Plan" Only a Hunter’s Wish List

In October the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources released a draft strategic plan for bighorn sheep in Utah. It was the typical two week comment period and was really not a strategic plan. It was a wish list and cheerleading document plagued with all of the typical archaic recreational paradigms of ‘hunters have made all of this possible and therefore we are going to assure a hunting legacy for bighorn sheep... and for wildlife watchers.’ We explained to UDWR, no thanks, the paradigm must be broader for bighorn sheep, native Utahns, to survive.

As an alternative to UDWR’s wish list-plan we provided them and the Forest Service a copy of a detailed 15 page plan and map, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Strategic Plan for the Uintas. Let us hope forward movement will occur, this time based not on recreational whims (hunting and wildlife watching), but on sound ecological decision making. The Rocky Mountain bighorn represents a profound test and will plainly tell us whether we care about a wild High Uintas as something other than a passing commodity. A very brief summary of our report follows.>

Commonly acknowledged as a wilderness-associated species, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis) once ranged throughout Utah’s northern mountain ranges, particularly the Uintas. A magnificent critter, both powerful and graceful, the bighorn has always inhabited the most remote and rugged terrain. They have survived since the Pleistocene and are symbolic of unrefined wilderness. They occupy traditional ranges and are slow to move into new habitats. They have not developed defensive biological mechanisms to domestic sheep disease. Thus, normal declines in populations are intensified and are now exhibited by significantly reduced populations through most of its normal range in the lower ‘48. Most bighorn biologists agree that disease and competition from domestic sheep, over-hunting and human encroachment led to the decline of bighorn sheep in the West and the Uintas. Numerous diseases transmitted from domestic sheep to Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are almost always fatal.

By 1988 it was estimated that all native Rocky Mountain bighorn had been extirpated from Utah. Only small reintroduced populations remained from often less than successful transplants. In part these transplants were marginal because no overall plan existed with respect to meeting the necessary habitat conditions the bighorn requires.

The Uintas are classic Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep habitat. The rolling high elevation ridges provide abundant summer range and wind-swept winter range along with buttresses and rocky slopes adjacent to meadows and deep canyons. The Uintas are neither too rugged, lacking adequate areas for foraging, nor are they too gentle, lacking talus slopes for escape cover.

On a cold January 5, 1989, 22 bighorn sheep from Wyoming's Wind River Mountains thundered from the trailer to their new home on the edge of the High Uintas Wilderness at Hoop Lake. (It is estimated that about 40 bighorn now reside on the North Slope, many within the High Uintas Wilderness.) The most significant threat to this reintroduced population of bighorn on the North Slope is disease and competition from domestic sheep.

Most bighorn researchers recommend that at least a 9-10 mile buffer between domestic sheep and bighorn be established to protect the wild sheep. Protecting untouched bighorn sheep ranges equates to protecting large integral ecosystems which in turn protects biodiversity and other sensitive species as well. Development of wildlands has also drastically affected bighorn numbers. This has resulted in a fragmentation of bighorn habitat into isolated parcels.

The Uintas remain integral to bighorn survival because much of the bighorn habitat lies within the 460,000 High Uintas Wild-erness and the almost 200,000 acres of roadless land adjacent to the High Uintas Wilderness, much of it high elevation alpine and subalpine country, as well as the 100,000 acres of high elevation subalpine forests in the headwaters of the Provo and Weber Rivers, also proposed as wilderness by the High Uintas Preservation Council (proposed Mt. Watson Wilderness). A significant portion of the potential critical winter range and lambing grounds would be located outside the High Uintas Wilderness. These areas and the unprotected roadless terrain adjacent to the wilderness face threats from oil and gas development, timber harvesting and recreational vehicles.

  1. Leave all roadless lands undeveloped.
  2. Domestic Livestock Grazing:There are 34 sheep allotments (four are vacant) and 31,000 sheep that graze the greater High Uintas area. Twelve allotments with 15,000 sheep,in the core of the range, are in prime bighorn habitat. These allotments will eventually have to be closed through transfer, buyout or phase out if the bighorn is to thrive. Another six allotments are located partially in the undeveloped land adjacent to the High Uintas Wilderness, also prime habitat. These allotments need boundary adjustments to separate the potential bighorn habitat from domestic sheep. When allotments in critical bighorn habitat become vacant, they should be allocated to big-horn sheep.
  3. A significant amount of potential bighorn winter range and lambing grounds is found outside the High Uintas Wilderness and roadless lands and needs to be protected for vehicles and development when bighorn are present.
  4. Recreation use in the High Uintas Wilderness and adjacent roadless lands will have to be carefully managed. Hunting of bighorn sheep should not occur on this landscape to allow these bighorn to become truly wild--influenced only by their wild landscapes and their behavior and to minimize the interaction between bighorn and humans. Human-induced stress can cause bighorn to avoid their preferred habitats
  5. Predator control is unnecessary to protect bighorn sheep on this wild landscape. In essence, predator control is a misguided effort to protect bighorn sheep from their own wildness--the very forces that made them the magnificent critters they have become.

(Ed. Note: If you would like a copy of the entire HUPC report, please contact our office.)

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