CURLEW, Wash. — Kerrin Doloughan and his friends are helping bighorn sheep that might not see the predators for the trees.
For the past four years, they have thinned thick stands of Douglas fir, killed weeds, installed a watering trough and planted shrubs the wild sheep savor.
The idea is to open up thickets surrounding the Little Vulcan Mountain meadow where the herd forages and bears its young, allowing them to see and escape from cougars and other predators that want to eat them.
Even conservation groups have applauded this rare example of government land agencies logging trees specifically to help animals survive.
“They’re real visual animals. If they can’t see through it, they don’t go through it,” Doloughan, a Bureau of Land Management range management specialist, said of California bighorns. “If it’s real brushy and thick, they tend to avoid it.”
The wild sheep, with curved horns like the decal on a Dodge truck, have been transplanted since 1971 to Eastern Washington from herds in Nevada and British Columbia. The 14 transplanted herds in Washington state are remnants of native species that historically roamed the West.
Doloughan got involved in efforts to save the Little Vulcan Mountain herd after its population crashed in the late 1990s, falling from an estimate of more than 150 to just 17 animals counted in 2001.
The sheep range over 5,200 acres on land owned by the BLM, U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Natural Resources, as well as private property, so efforts to save the herd had to be cooperative, Doloughan said.
After veterinarians concluded a parasite known as lungworm was partially responsible for the herd’s decline, blocks of salt containing medication were scattered throughout the herd’s range.
But Doloughan suspected predators also might be responsible, so he put together a plan to rehabilitate their habitat, making it easier to spot cougars, bears and coyotes and flee to safety.
Last spring, crews moved into the thickets that surround the sheep’s home meadow and began felling Douglas fir that had crowded out open-canopy ponderosa pine and other native species.
Others chopped out underbrush and smaller trees, creating a stand that looks much like it did in pictures Doloughan found of the area from the 1940s. Helicopters were used for most of the logging, an expensive method that spares the steep ground from damage and prevents erosion.
The result was the opening of “lanes” through the trees and the reduction of underbrush where predators could lurk.
The efforts appear to be working.
During a recent visit to the meadow on a bench above the Kettle River, Doloughan, BLM specialist Glenn Paulson and state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Steve Zender watched a group of nine or 10 sheep rest on a rock outcropping above the Kettle River outside Curlew.
Later, as they crested a rise on the edge of the sheep’s home meadow, they startled another herd of about 20, including six or seven rams.
Because it is difficult to find and count moving herds of elusive animals, estimates of the herd’s size range from about 40 to as many as 200. Zender said 80-110 would be the optimum size for the amount of available food and land available.
The population has sprung back to a point where Zender thinks it may be time to open a limited ram hunt. Annual hunts were suspended by the state and Colville Confederated Tribes in 1999 because so many animals had been lost to disease and predators.
Starting four years ago, Doloughan and volunteers from wildlife conservation groups began making changes in the lambing meadow to make the sheep’s lives easier.
With funding from the nonprofit Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Safari Club International and Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, Doloughan and others have installed a spring-fed water trough, built fences to keep domestic animals out and seeded the meadow.
The wild sheep foundation also paid for satellite collars and helicopter time to track the sheep, which appear to be on the rebound, Doloughan said.
Steve Kline, past president of the Washington chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, which has spent about $20,000 on the project, said it has been a good match.
“Government agencies get to a certain point and then they can’t get anything done without more money,” he said. “The Vulcan Mountain project is a combination of habitat improvement and funding. … We’re going to have a sustainable herd up there.”
The tree-thinning logging project was delayed a year after the Kettle Range Conservation Group objected, but the group withdrew its opposition after Doloughan took its leaders on a tour and explained the benefits to sheep.
By taking care of the things that were killing the sheep — parasites, predators and degraded habitat — and introducing other transplants to widen the genetic diversity, the Little Vulcan Mountain herd appears to be making a comeback.
“The rest is up to Nature to do its thing,” Doloughan said. “I think we’re doing some of the right things.”