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Washington bighorn sheep herds trapped to help others

A bighorn sheep ram curls its lips to collect more sensory information as it seeks receptive ewes during the late November-December breeding season in Montana. (Jaime Johnson)
A bighorn sheep ram curls its lips to collect more sensory information as it seeks receptive ewes during the late November-December breeding season in Montana. (Jaime Johnson)

Bighorn sheep herds in north central Washington are getting new bloodlines.

Bighorns near Yakima are being trapped this winter and relocated to boost other herds.

On Wednesday, biologists from the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department and Colville Tribe delivered eight captured sheep to the Quilomene herd south of Wenatchee. Four others were released Thursday with the Vulcan Mountain herd near Curlew, where Colville Tribal members have hunting rights, including a few special permits for bighorn.

A small herd of about 20 California bighorn sheep living on the rocky ridges above Omak Lake on the Colville Indian Reservation is scheduled to get a boost from the Yakima herds as more sheep are trapped at Yakima-area feeding stations.

Over the last few years, hundreds of bighorn sheep have been relocated in Washington to boost smaller herds, or establish new ones in other parts of the state.

“Some of these herds are more productive than others,” said Ted Clausing, wildlife program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Yakima.

Two herds on Cleman Mountain, where sheep were captured Wednesday, have about 500 sheep. “We’re trying to use those to supplement other herds around the state,” he said.

California bighorns – which can weigh up to 300 pounds – are native to Washington but were nearly exterminated many decades ago. Most restoration efforts have occurred over the last 40-50 years, Clausing said.

The relocations should boost existing herds, establish new ones and help strengthen smaller herds by increasing genetic diversity.

On the Colville Indian Reservation, biologists have relocated 113 bighorn sheep over the last three years to Hell’s Gate game reserve – a 70,000-acre area on the Colville Indian Reservation near Keller.

That herd is up to 125-150 sheep, strong enough to issue a few hunting permits this year – a first on the Colville reservation for bighorns.

Tribal Fish and Wildlife Director Joe Peone said his department hopes to offer up to three permits there along with a few permits north of the reservation to the Canadian border, where Colville Tribal members have hunting and fishing rights.

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