Precariously Perched

Bighorn sheep
A yearling ram peers down from a safe perch in Rock Canyon. Bighorns frequent the rocky outcrops that line both sides of the trail in the canyon.
Bighorns are Back

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep once again have their eye on the BYU campus, while college students have their eye, and satellite monitors, on the sheep.

In the 1920s Mount Timpanogos harbored a lingering remnant of native bighorn sheep that were once abundant along the Wasatch Front. But by the 1930s the wild sheep had disappeared from Utah Valley's favorite mountain due to unregulated hunting, vulnerability to domestic sheep diseases, competition with domestic livestock, and conversion of native grasslands to shrublands. This coincided with a sharp decline in bighorn populations across northern Utah, and by the 1960s the animals across the entire state were nearly wiped out. Only scattered sightings were reported in the north, and only a few small groups of desert bighorns were holding tightly to some southern canyons.  

Now, under the watchful eye of a veteran BYU professor and his team of wildlife biology students, the bighorns are back, not just on Timpanogos, but also in Rock Canyon, literally overlooking the BYU campus. In January 2000 wildlife officials released 25 sheep at the base of Mount Timpanogos, imported from Rattlesnake Canyon near Price, Utah. The following year, wildlife officials brought 32 bighorns to Utah from Alberta, Canada. They released ten at the base of Mount Timpanogos, and another 22 into Rock Canyon, just east of the Provo Temple. Finally, in February 2002, nine additional bighorns from Montana were released onto Mount Timpanogos. The critical question was: Would the sheep establish themselves and survive?

Bighorn sheep are an integral part of Utah's wildlife heritage. The magnificent animals were historically hunted and used by Native Americans, explorers, trappers, and early pioneers. Because they were an important piece of North America's biodiversity, officials have made a large effort and spent a lot of money to reintroduce them to their historic ranges. Since 1966, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) has been aggressively transplanting bighorns back into central and northern Utah. The reintroduced populations have experienced mixed success due to predation by mountain lions, diseases, and competition with elk, mule deer, and domestic sheep.

In June 2000, four months after the bighorns were released on Mount Timpanogos, the UDWR and the Utah Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep contacted Dr. Jerran Flinders, a professor of Integrative Biology at BYU. They wanted Flinders to document the success of bighorn transplants and to identify habitat components that would ensure their survival. Specifically they were interested in animal dispersal patterns, habitat and forage selection, lamb production and survival, mortality causes, and persistence of reintroduced populations.

Dr. Jerran Flinders with students bighorn sheepBYU Students, UDWR wrokers and a bighorn sheepA ram and ewe from Antelope Island

Bighorn sheeps in Antelope Island
1- Dr. Jerran Flinders shows students Loren chase, Jericho Whiting, and Justin Shannon the details of bighorn sheep ageing on a BYU Museum specimen. 2-BYU students, UDWR workers, and volunteers, have blindfolded a ram (to reduce stress during capture) and hung a GPS collar around his neck. The collar fixes location via satellite every two hours; students can map dispersal and range-use patterns. Photo by Loren Chase. 3- A ram and ewe (background) from Antelope Island are released onto their new mountain home. 4- UDWR increases bighorn sheep on Antelope Island (in Great Salt Lake); from there they are distributed across the State.

Currently, two BYU graduate students and three undergraduates work on the Mount Timpanogos bighorn project. Jericho Whiting (Payson, UT) started on the project as an undergraduate in June 2000. He completed a master's degree in August 2005 with data he collected as an undergraduate. Whiting is currently a Ph.D. student at Idaho State University. "The opportunity to conduct research so close to campus while I was an undergraduate was invaluable," Whiting said. "Through my research I was able to network with professionals, give presentations at scientific meetings, publish in scientific journals, and write proposals for funding. My BYU experience was a wonderful preparation for my Ph.D. program and my career." 

"On the bighorn project, students work together developing skills in all aspects of wildlife science," said Dr. Flinders. "They learn proper methodologies and data collection in the field and also how to properly prepare, handle, and analyze data in the laboratory. The project also teaches students to become wise stewards of a prized natural resource," he said. 

But, even with all the attention from wildlife officials and Dr. Flinders' students, the re-introduced bighorns face a precarious future. Many other bighorn reintroductions throughout the Western United States have been well-documented failures. And because so many programs fail, researchers are learning as much as they can to enhance success. 

The bighorn population on Mount Timpanogos and in Rock Canyon has slowly increased from the original 67 to about 80 sheep. Data gathered by BYU students is providing a basis for better management and will help safeguard the bighorns against decline or extinction, including from the bighorn's most dangerous predator-the cougar. Go . . . bighorns!