The river and the land at Sheep Bridge Nature Preserve have long been a source of sustenance for people. More than 400 years ago, Native Americans from the Shivwits Band of the Paiute Tribe valued and relied on the natural resources of this stretch of the Virgin River. In the 1850s, the narrow canyon walls at this preserve supported the first “sheep bridge,” a one-lane crossing that ranchers used to move sheep single-file across the river. Rebuilt several times over the years, a plank pedestrian bridge still stands today next to the modern bridge that now spans the river.
The Virgin River is one of the most remarkable, and most threatened, rivers in the Southwest. Spanning elevations from 10,000 feet to the desert floor, the river encompasses vastly different ecoregions and a stunning array of biodiversity—40 state sensitive species, 12 federally-listed species and six native fish. The river’s riparian corridor is vital for nesting, wintering and migration for neotropical birds including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, Wilson’s warbler, and many more. The health of this river means life or death for its native fish such as the federally-listed woundfin. This tiny fish is silvery, has no scales and a shark-like appearance. Living only in the Virgin River, the woundfin eats aquatic plants, bugs and decaying material. Today the woundfin’s survival is threatened by invasive fish species, low water levels and pollution—problems that are compounded by the region’s fast-paced development and climate change.
Carving through Zion National Park, the Virgin is responsible for some of the most scenic natural attractions in the United States—drawing millions of visitors. Downstream, human demands on the Virgin are growing. Washington County is on pace to reach a population of 500,000 in the next 50 years. A new urgency to protect this vital river is bringing together diverse partners and communities with creative solutions. Today there is potential to safeguard the Virgin’s rich, streamside corridors, and develop projects with a common agenda – water sharing for people and wildlife.
TNC’s purchase and protection of the Sheep Bridge property was made possible by a range of supporters and partners, including the property’s previous landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Utah, the Virgin River Program, and the Virgin River Land Preservation Association, as well as many TNC contributors.