Zion’s Desert Bighorn, a Symbol of Wilderness and Hope

Zion’s Desert Bighorn, a Symbol of Wilderness and Hope

Yes, it’s true, we seldom play favorites in within our National Parks and public lands. Saying that, Zion’s east entrance to the park takes exception. In our opinion, there is no grander beginning to a National Park adventure (arriving by car). Meandering through orange, red, and white cliffs etched with implausible striations, the road ultimately drops you into the spectacular panorama of Zion Canyon – at this juncture, it’s hard not to conceive you’ve already experienced the apex of your trip. Depending on the time of year, the added bonus of viewing Zion’s herd of desert bighorn sheep roam the remarkable, rocky and verdant landscape is simply the cherry on top.

As frequent as Zion’s desert bighorn are seen, it’s easy to assume the sure-footed, perfectly adapted bighorn is a fixture of this vast wilderness and the visitor experience. One must only look to the Zion Forever Project's Adopt a Bighorn Program to quickly learn these magnificent animals that once numbered in the millions throughout the Southwest were in fact extirpated from Zion’s environs by the mid-1900’s. You guessed it, human encroachment, hunting, habitat loss, and disease outbreaks from domestic livestock all contributed to their demise and their eventual restoration within Park boundaries in 1978. 

We at Wild Tribute immediately identified with Zion Forever’s efforts and for several years now have made ongoing and increasing contributions to the Adopt a Bighorn Program with our 4 the Parks donations. Since the Bighorn’s successful re-introduction to Zion, the herd has both languished and thrived, but in recent years has particularly flourished, growing to 800+ in size. While this no doubt is fantastic, the growing population ironically introduces risk as desert bighorn cross park boundaries, and intermingle with nearby domestic sheep. This distant cousin is known to carry dangerous pathogens that lead to disease, inclusive of bacterial pneumonia (a symptom of such is coughing), that can spread hastily if not proactively managed.

So what is being done to mitigate risk? Last year, supported by Zion Forever’s funding, 50 desert bighorn were transplanted from Zion’s herd to nearby public lands, including the domain of Bears Ears National Monument and Canyonlands National Park. Can you say, “Score!”. This initiative not only helps reestablish traditional bighorn herds in these equally wild places – hopefully kick-starting a similar success story as Zion – but also protects the Zion herd from the impact of disease. In order to monitor the bighorn and their movement patterns, several sheep within Zion’s herd were additionally collared with GPS trackers to equip researchers with the knowledge to better understand the bighorn’s use of Zion’s landscape.

In 2019, Zion leadership and state wildlife agency partners will leverage the Adopt-a-Bighorn program’s funding to further develop a monitoring and tracking program to understand migration routes both within and outside park boundaries. With the ultimate goal of understanding the forces impacting bighorn survival, components of the program will incorporate aerial population counts, and the application of data analysis from the ongoing information received from GPS collars to determine lamb success rates and the correlating health of the overall herd.

Spirit animals are a thing after all, right? Let’s just say we love desert bighorn. And Zion, well, it’s our extended backyard from Salt Lake City (we feel at home in all of our National Parks and public lands, but Utah’s Mighty 5 yield extra reverence). By joining Zion’s Adopt-a-Bighorn program, you’re protecting the park’s symbol of wilderness. Research concludes a healthy population of sensitive species, such as the desert bighorn, is proof of a strong ecosystem and its ability to support many other wildlife species – in Zion’s case, mountain lions, California condors, Mexican spotted owls, and peregrine falcons.

Fight for wilderness, support the Zion Forever Project, join us in our 4 the Parks march. We’re in this together!

With a $30.00 donation you will receive:

  • a plush bighorn or embroidered ball cap
  • a frame-able adoption certificate noting your support of bighorn sheep in Zion National Park
  • website access with photographs and current information about the work you are supporting
  • a great feeling knowing you are making a difference in Zion National Park

The Zion Forever Project is the official non-profit partner for Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks and Pipe Spring National Monuments. The organization engages in collaborative efforts with federal agencies, gateway communities, and guests to create connections to the Greater Zion Landscape that will lead to lifelong stewardship. By establishing business and agency partnerships, encouraging collaborative innovation, expanding educational opportunities, funding tangible projects, and leveraging resources, the Zion Forever Project is building the next generation of leaders and stewards.

Also note, you can also purchase Wild Tribute's dedicated Adopt a Bighorn shirt in Zion Forever's store within the main visitor center at Zion National Park, which directly supports the program.

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Wild Tribute was founded to honor our parks, forests, and oceans. We donate 4% of our proceeds to support America's historic and wild places. Our designs pay tribute to where legacy roams.