Bighorn sheep in Utah and Arizona are in jeopardy due to a pneumonia outbreak in Zion National Park. The US Park Service announced the discovery of bacterial pneumonia in desert bighorn sheep within Zion National Park in southern Utah on July 31st. Since then, the disease has been confirmed as being caused by bacteria in the Pasteurella family, to which the sheep have a low resistance. Pneumonia outbreaks in wild sheep populations in the past have caused serious mortality events and severely limited sheep herd population growth.
Utah also has a desert bighorn hunting unit called the Zion unit, managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and the unit has produced the largest desert sheep in the state. Desert bighorns in the Utah Zion hunt unit are shared with Arizona’s Unit 13A, and the Virgin River flows from the National Park into Arizona’s Unit 13A. The Utah hunt unit is separated from the National Park by Interstate 15, which should be an effective barrier to sheep movement. However, the exact transmission route between the bacterium and sheep is unknown, and everyone is holding their breath waiting to see how this new development works out.
Those hunters with sheep permits for this season or those looking to draw a desert bighorn sheep tag in Utah or Arizona next year need to watch this situation closely. It is unlikely that the Park Service will manage the disease, and the outbreak could jump the interstate highway or follow the river down into Arizona. Hunters headed to Utah and Arizona this season should monitor news from the respective state wildlife departments. Hunters should report sightings of coughing sheep to wildlife authorities.
For the 2019 fall hunting season, the next round of Utah sheep hunting applications will be due in March 2019, and the Arizona applications will be due in June 2019. If the disease jumps into either hunt unit, expect tag numbers to be reduced and applications in other units to increase.