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Photos courtesy Justin Haug, WDFW

Devon Comstock, WDFW Biologist
Kristin Mansfield, WDFW Veterinarian
Rich Harris, WDFW Natural Resources Scientist

On February 21st Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff, along with staff from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR), with assistance from volunteers with the Wenatchee Sportsman’s Association and Washington Wild Sheep Foundation, captured 28 bighorn sheep on Chelan Butte. Of the total animals captured, 20 were translocated to the Stansbury Mountains in Utah, which are a rugged mountain range approximately 45 minutes west of Salt Lake City. These mountains are home to a small herd of approximately 60 healthy bighorn sheep that were introduced in 2018. Utah’s goals of augmenting this bighorn herd are to help attain the population objective more quickly, increase genetic diversity, and expand the current range of the herd.

Bighorn sheep are native to parts of Washington but were extirpated in the early 1900s. In 2004, 35 sheep were translocated from the Cleman Mountain herd, in Yakima County, and released in the Chelan Butte Unit of the Chelan Wildlife Area to establish the Chelan Butte herd, which now numbers approximately 200, close to the management objective for this herd. WDFW wishes to prevent this herd from increasing further to reduce the probability of resource conflicts or pathogen infection.

According to Jace Taylor, UDWR Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goat Biologist, “The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is very grateful to WDFW for offering these animals, this project will benefit healthy wildlife in Utah as well as the people who enjoy them on the landscape”.

The remaining eight captured sheep received GPS collars and were released on site, which will help WDFW better understand habitat use and seasonal movements of the animals. Animals that were translocated to Utah received physical exams and were tested for a variety of pathogens to ensure that they were healthy before being released. WDFW, in common with other wildlife agencies within bighorn range, is concerned to keep bighorns free of bacteria that can lead to lethal pneumonia.

The bighorns were captured using a corral style trap, which was baited to attract sheep. WDFW biologists and volunteers have been baiting this trap continuously since mid-December to condition animals to coming to the trap. Construction on this trap began in 2017 and this was the first time this trap was used on Chelan Butte.

WDFW Assistant District Biologist Devon Comstock stated, “The trap worked as well as could be expected and in our initial capture we were able to corral approximately 40 animals.” Once the capture objectives were met, the remaining sheep were immediately released on site.

Once sheep are inside the trap, biologist use a trigger to drop an encircling tarp wall around the animals. The veterinary team and biologists take the utmost care to reduce stress and handling time for each animal during processing, and no animals were harmed during the capture.

“The highest priority of any capture is the safety of the wildlife we are handling and the staff and volunteers participating.” Comstock said.

More information on bighorn sheep herds in Washington can be found at https://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/pneumonia/herds.html.

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