WDFW and Tulalip Tribes test drones for surveying bighorn sheep

News release

Contact: William Moore, 509-306-8969
Media Contact: Jennifer Johnson, 509-864-1973

YAKIMA – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Tulalip Tribes are working together to evaluate the use of drones for monitoring bighorn sheep in the Umtanum, Selah Butte, and Cleman Mountain herds of south central Washington. 

Drone flights will take place from April through December 2024 and will be conducted by staff from WDFW and the Tulalip Tribes with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Small Unmanned Aircraft System Remote Pilot certification and will follow FAA drone flight regulations. Emphasis will be on flights over WDFW-managed wildlife areas, with WDFW seeking pre-approval by landowners should flights over other lands be considered.

The purpose of this pilot research is to assess the use of drones to collect bighorn sheep counts, and whether drone survey data can improve the Department’s other surveys for bighorn sheep. Other project objectives are to assess if signs of pneumonia infections can be reliably observed from drone imagery. The Department and its collaborators will use results from this effort to refine future drone surveys for bighorn and other species. 

“WDFW is excited to coordinate with the Tulalip Tribes to learn more about using drones to monitor wildlife,” said Ross Huffman, WDFW South Central Region wildlife program manager. "Drones may offer a less invasive and safer alternative to traditional helicopter surveys, reducing disturbance to wildlife and allowing staff to spend less time in aircraft."

Flight timing will depend on conditions, including favorable weather and no interference with members of the public using the area, including hunters. Pilots will maintain line-of-sight with their drone for awareness of potential disturbance to wildlife or people. Pilots will ground the drone if flight conditions become unsuitable to fly safely or responsibly. No area closures or significant public impacts are expected.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep can be found in several herds across central and eastern Washington. They are a Species of Greatest Conservation Need under Washington’s State Wildlife Action Plan. Disease and habitat fragmentation are concerns for bighorn sheep conservation and long-term population management.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife works to preserve, protect, and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities. 

Request this information in an alternative format or language at wdfw.wa.gov/accessibility/requests-accommodation, 833-855-1012, TTY (711), or CivilRightsTeam@dfw.wa.gov.