This wild winter party in central Utah was worth a closer look
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The kids were doing what most kids do. All kids enjoy a Saturday with a little snow, dressed warm and allowed to exercise their freedom by running, jumping, sliding and pestering each other while their parents were busy. But there’s something different about these kids: they are Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and their parents were in the middle of the rutting season.
This happened the Saturday before Thanksgiving near Oak City, Utah, when my wife and I went to watch a granddaughter perform in a play. My son-in-law invited me to Oak Creek Canyon to observe and photograph rutting mule deer. We were not alone. About 30 other loaded vehicles were also watching the nature show.
This herd of bighorns is rather new to this area. From 2014 through 2018, over 100 have been transplanted from the overpopulated Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and funded by sportsmen’s groups.
Idaho has some rich areas for Rocky Mountain Bighorns along with some California Bighorns with most of them located in the Big Lost River drainage and Hells Canyon. The closest herds to the Upper Snake River Valley are in the Hoback Canyon along the South Fork of the Snake River, on the Miller Butte in the Elk Refuge at Jackson, Wyoming and near Quake Lake in Montana. Occasionally, a few will be in Teton Canyon, east of Driggs or on Sawtelle Peak in Island Park.
In 2009, the Idaho State Legislature passed a law limiting the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s ability to transplant bighorns to areas with suitable habitat in Idaho. This was done to prevent wild sheep and domestic sheep from spreading diseases between the two species. In 2010, a federal lawsuit forced the removal of domestic sheep from part of the Payette National Forest to protect the bighorn herd that was already there.
A year ago, I made two trips to Jackson to watch the bighorns on Miller Butte and was pleased with the sheep that I saw there. One time I saw the sheep licking the salt solution from the side of a car. They have learned that vehicles will collect road-melt solutions, which creates dangerous situations for both animals and visitors. Visitors are encouraged to keep slowly driving away when the animals approach them until they are a safe distance away.
Back at the herd in Oak Creek, the animals worked their way down the mountain to the creek for a drink – except for the largest ram. He was the only one wearing an ear tag, a blue ear-decoration indicating that he was a transplant. He stayed on the rock cliffs watching as the rest crossed the road to the creek. He appeared to become irritated as two young rams became excited and started jumping around and chasing the ewes. A quick trip down the hill and a swift butt in the backside settled them down.
The recent snows should bring area sheep into viewing distant for area wildlife viewers. A trip to Miller Butte may be in order to watch the bighorns. But be safe and view them at a distance – their life depends on it.