Winter feeding of bighorn sheep near Sullivan Lake in Pend Oreille County will be phased out this season to protect the herd from cougar predation, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) announced today.
The last opportunity for the public to watch sheep feed at the site will be from Dec. 15 until Jan. 15, said Steve Zender, WDFW district wildlife biologist.
"The sheep will do fine on natural forage," Zender said. "They will also be less vulnerable to predation when they're spread out in more natural rugged terrain with more opportunities to escape."
The winter feeding site, located on Colville National Forest land at the south end of Sullivan Lake near the Noisy Creek campground, has been a popular sheep viewing site for about 20 years.
But loss of sheep to cougars at the site the last two winters has forced early closure of the feeding program during the past two years.
During the winter of 2000-2001, at least one cougar was seen and at least one sheep from the small herd of about 25 animals was killed by a cougar at the feeding site, Zender said.
Last winter, signs of cougar in the area were more extensive. Multiple cats were tracked or seen on more than one occasion, and none of the four lambs observed in December survived to mid-January.
"Our winter wildlife feeding policy authorizes feeding for public viewing enjoyment unless it has a detrimental impact on the species being fed," Zender said. "I believe the long-term viability of this herd is seriously threatened, given the low numbers and poor lamb survival.
"Feeding that concentrates the sheep in poor escape terrain appears to be contributing to cougar predation," he said.
Feeding near Sullivan Lake began in the 1970s after Rocky Mountain bighorns captured in Canada were released to re-establish the species in historic range. As the herd grew, feeding kept them available for trapping and transplant to other parts of the state.
Initially seen as a side benefit of the feeding program, the opportunity for close-up public viewing of the animals eventually became the only reason WDFW continued feeding the herd after the last sheep capture-and-transplant operation in 1995, Zender said.
Zender said the high hunter harvest of cougars in the last couple of years appears to have reduced or stabilized the cougar population. But the behavior of some cougars appears to have changed, he speculates, with young, bold animals taking up residence in much closer proximity to humans than ever before.
"Concentrating prey – in this case, bighorn sheep – in an artificial setting, with structures and high human activity, may be programming some local cougars for a life of inappropriate behavior," said Zender. "Part of managing predators today is making hard, new choices on how we manage their prey."
Zender noted that information about the phase-out of the feeding and viewing program will be available in the site parking lot for site visitors who don't hear about the closure in advance.
The feeding site is located about 80 miles northeast of Spokane. To get there, take Highway 20 north to Ione, then cross the bridge over the Pend Oreille River to the east and continue north on the Sullivan Lake Road to Noisy Creek campground. Parking is usually available in the plowed-out campground road.
A one-quarter-mile hike uphill, usually on snow and sometimes ice, is required to reach the viewing platform near the feeders. There is no guarantee of always seeing sheep at the feeders. Visitors are reminded to leave all pets at home, be as quiet as possible for the best viewing and be aware of and alert to the possible presence of cougars.