The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) stopped feeding bighorn sheep at the Sullivan Lake winter feeding station in Pend Oreille County this week because cougars persisting there pose a potential public safety problem.
This is the second consecutive year that sheep feeding at the popular viewing site near Noisy Creek campground on the Sullivan Lake Ranger District of the Colville National Forest has been curtailed due to cougars.
Normally WDFW supplies feed through the month of February. But when few or no sheep were coming into the feed station the past week, and when tracks of at least two cougars were found in, under, and around a feeding shed last weekend, WDFW officials decided to discontinue the program for the season.
Earlier this winter a bighorn lamb was found killed by a cougar near the feeding station. Feeding was stopped, the area closed, and, because of the site's proximity to a public campground and concern about conditioning the cat to preying on fed animals, the cougar was tracked with hounds and removed. Feeding resumed and up to 18 sheep were seen at the site last month.
Last year feeding stopped at the end of January when a cougar persisted at the site.
"This is first a public safety issue," explained WDFW's northeast district wildlife biologist Steve Zender, "but we're also concerned about the sheep and about conditioning cats to preying on fed animals, including domestic livestock."
The feeding station is visited each winter by hundreds of people seeking a relatively close-up view of wild bighorn sheep. The feeding began shortly after a 1972 transplant of 18 sheep from Canada in an effort to re-establish the species there and in other areas of the state. The sheep have never needed the supplemental feed, but it kept them available for easy trapping and transplant to other parts of their native range. Between 1977 and 1995, about 60 sheep were transplanted to the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington. By 1995, 22 sheep were also moved to a Washington State University facility in Pullman for study of their susceptibility to domestic livestock diseases.
The winter feeding has continued since then for viewing enjoyment. Zender said that at this point bighorn sheep viewing opportunities are very poor, with or without the feed provided, because of the cougar presence.