OLYMPIA - The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) plans to release up to 30 bighorn sheep on its Chelan Butte Wildlife Area in Chelan County this winter to restore an historic population.
"This will be a great addition to Chelan County's wildlife heritage," said WDFW northcentral regional director Dennis Beich. "Bighorns belong here and they're a popular species for many wildlife viewers. It's the kind of project we hope can be part of the wildlife mitigation we're currently negotiating with Chelan Public Utility District for Rocky Reach Dam relicensing."
The sheep will be captured from the overly abundant herd at Clemans Mountain southwest of Yakima and transported in trailers to the release site.
The effort is part of WDFW's management plan to boost the species statewide by establishing new herds. About 1,100 bighorn sheep are distributed in 16 herds east of the Cascades. Although 11 of those herds are considered stable to increasing, most are few in number, isolated and relatively small. Relocation is used to increase sheep abundance in areas where habitat is secure and sheep once roamed.
The 8,200 acres of the Chelan Butte Wildlife Area, near the town of Chelan on the south-facing slopes of Chelan Butte, were purchased over 50 years ago with funding from Chelan PUD to make up for wildlife losses from construction of Rocky Reach Dam. The area was once home to bighorn sheep that biologists believe disappeared over time due to over-exploitation and domestic sheep diseases, to which wild sheep are very vulnerable.
Chelan Butte was identified as a suitable site for reintroduction in a site evaluation completed last year by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staff under contract with WDFW. A total of about 25,000 acres of bighorn habitat are available in the area, including grasslands and rocky outcroppings for escape cover.
Sixty percent of the bighorn habitat is in public ownership (28 percent WDFW, 21 percent BLM, 6 percent Washington Department of Natural Resources, and 5 percent U.S. Forest Service), with Chelan PUD properties within the 40 percent private ownership. Biologists expect most sheep use will be on the south and east sides of Chelan Butte and in the Chelan River gorge, based on the habitat suitability analysis. There are no known domestic sheep or goat herds in the area, although small numbers may be present on small, privately owned parcels.
The Clemans Mountain herd currently totals 200 sheep in an area that best supports about 150. Sheep will be removed from that herd by drawing them into a baited corral trap.
"The restoration of bighorn sheep to this area is exactly the kind of wildlife mitigation envisioned by the department and PUD 50 years ago," Beich said. "Development of the wildlife viewing opportunities that come with it will increase local tourism and economically benefit surrounding communities."
Beich noted that wildlife viewing is nearly a billion-dollar industry annually in Washington, based on trip-related and equipment expenditures tallied by the latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recreation survey in 2001.
"Much of that outdoor recreation business comes Chelan County's way from nearby Seattle," Beich said.
Beich also said that when the new sheep population grows to sustainable levels, special bighorn hunting permits could be possible. Demand for bighorn sheep permits far exceeds allowable harvest.
"It could be one more recreational draw to this area," he said. "Out of Washington's annual $350 million hunting industry, well over $1 million of those dollars are spent in Chelan County alone on deer, elk, black bear, bighorn sheep and mountain goat hunting."