WASHINGTON COUNTY, UTAH (ABC4 News) – Several species of birds and fish get a reprieve from developers, and the approach to Zion National Park has a section guaranteed to stay pristine.

The Nature Conservancy, and partners have purchased Sheep Bridge, along two miles of the Virgin river near the National Park. Stopping development along the river banks, and protecting stream side habitat, in what is called one of Utah’s most scenic watersheds.

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It is in the town of Virgin, 22 miles east of St. George.

Courtesy HikesStGeorge.com

In a press release sent to ABC4 News from The Nature Conservancy-Utah Chapter:

“The two mile-long river corridor through Sheep Bridge has been identified by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources as one of the most pristine in the American Southwest. Here, the Virgin River has eroded a deep, steep-sided canyon through colorful sandstone formations”

It’s created what is called a lush riparian zone. Riparian is a word used to describe the interface between the land and a river or stream. Plants near the area are called, riparian vegetation.

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There are four at-risk native fish this purchase helps to protect. The Virgin spinedace, flannelmouth sucker, desert sucker, and the speckled dace.

The riparian zone is vital for nesting, wintering, and migrating neo-tropical birds, such as the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, Wilson’s warbler, and many more. It is also an oasis in the surrounding arid landscape for amphibians, reptiles, and numerous species of native wildlife.

“It’s a crucial acquisition that was possible due to close partnering with TNC, the State, and the Virgin River Recovery Program,” explains Laura Romin, acting Utah Field Supervisor with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). “This stretch of the Virgin River has important habitat values for native fish species, the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and migratory birds, and maintains connectivity of important and rare riparian habitat which is so vital in the arid lands of Utah’s red rock country. ”

The press release explains, The Nature Conservancy has been working in this region for many years and considers the completion of this acquisition a major step forward in the protection of the Virgin River corridor leading up to Zion National Park.

Morning at Sheep Bridge

“Washington County has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. As development pressures mount, this is a rare opportunity to safeguard healthy river habitat,” says Elaine York, TNC-Utah’s West Desert Regional Director. “The Virgin River includes healthy habitat for wildlife and is in the middle of some of the most scenic landscape in the United States. Sustaining the health of the Virgin River is urgent and important for people and nature.”

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The purchase was made possible by generous private donations, and funding provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through it’s endangered species programs. The land itself will remain private and on the county tax rolls.

Management of the area will be by the Nature Conservancy in cooperation with the Utah State Department of Natural Resources.

“This is an example of a great conservation partnership,” adds Brian Steed, Director, Utah State Department of Natural Resources. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Utah and private funders have come together to conserve this very special section on the Virgin River in the scenic corridor leading to Zion National Park. We are pleased to have been of assistance, and extend our congratulations and thanks to everyone involved.”

“As millions of visitors approach Zion National Park,” said Lori Rose, Executive Director of the Virgin River Land Preservation Association, “they drive along the Virgin River. Its beautiful cottonwoods form a “ribbon of green” in the red rock. Sheep Bridge is a vital link in this corridor. Our organization has been thrilled to be a part of this effort which will protect this property for all time.”

Thanks were given in the press release:

In addition to the USFWS’ major commitment, The Nature Conservancy would like to thank the Dr. Ezekiel R. Dumke and Edna Wattis Dumke Foundation, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles  Foundation, My Good Fund, The Crandall Family, Dan Sulzbach, The Virgin River Land Preservation Association, Congressman Chris Stewart, Governor Gary Herbert, The Washington County Water Conservancy District, Zion Forever, many other generous private contributors and the landowners from whom the land was purchased for helping to make this project possible.