Bighorns set out for new home on the range

CHELAN BUTTE, Chelan County — Rounding up nearly three dozen wild bighorn sheep is no easy task. They're big — as large as 250 pounds — with powerful legs, nimble hooves and eyes that can spy a predator a half-mile away.

But they can be tricked. And on a cold day last week, all it took was an offering of hay and grain from some all-too-friendly state wildlife agents.

What happened next, for the sheep of Clemans Mountain, was a traumatic whirlwind of unwelcome captivity. Thirty-five bighorns were set upon by a brawny team of biologists and veterinarians, who corralled, tackled, tied and blindfolded them, then loaded them for transport.

When it was over, it was hard to say who got the worst of it — captor or prey.

The following morning, the game agents let loose the sheep into the sage-mottled Chelan Butte Wildlife Area some 150 miles away.

Unknowingly, they became the first wild sheep in a century to populate this area south of Lake Chelan.

For wildlife agents, this was a milestone in bringing back a revered species that had once vanished from Washington state.

By plucking out three young rams, 20 ewes and a dozen lambs, state biologists say they also successfully culled a 200-head herd that had grown dangerously large for its home range.

"The timing couldn't have been better, so it's neat to see it finally come to this," said Donny Martorello, the Special Species Section manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We're creating a checkerboard of bighorn sheep around the state."

Someday, it's hoped, bighorn sheep will make a comeback and be abundant and wide-ranging enough to survive and prosper without as much intervention, Martorello said.

A fragile population

For thousands of years, wild sheep grazed the alpine ridges of the West, providing a staple for Indian hunters, who honored them in petroglyphs and legends.

In winter, they descend the cliffs to forage in lowland meadows. In summer, they climb to safety on ridges above 7,000 feet, where rams vie for patriarchy by clashing mighty horns with enough force to fracture a human skull six times over. The crack of their battles can sound like gunfire.

But in the 1800s, white settlers introduced the hunting rifle and domestic sheep, and the wild sheep began to disappear. By the early 1900s, bighorns were extinct on Chelan Butte. By the 1940s, bighorns had disappeared in Washington.

Biologists have been trying to reintroduce them, with varying success, for several decades. Some herds have thrived, while others have succumbed to the same diseases, parasites and lost grazing that exterminated their predecessors.

Today, an estimated 1,100 bighorn sheep live in 17 herds, from the corner of Walla Walla County to the remote reaches of the Okanogan. And several groups have formed to help them make a comeback.

"Maybe it's the country that they live in, or maybe it's that there aren't that many of them," explains Bryan Bailey of Onalaska, a member of the Washington chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. The organization paid the $5,000 tab for last week's relocation. "Or maybe it's just the regalness of them."

Despite their marginal numbers, Washington allows a handful of bighorn rams to be hunted each year. Bagging a bighorn is considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Northwest hunters. The state issues fewer than two dozen tags — most by raffle, but some are auctioned off.

An Oregon hunter this month paid $86,000 for the chance to bag a wild ram. In Washington, a tag can fetch $50,000 or more.

"It's the ruggedness, the difficulty and the skill it takes to pursue one of those animals," explains Fred Zitterkopf of Spokane, president of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, a hunters' preservationist group. "It's the chase, the pursuit, and it's tough to accomplish."

Consequently, hunters and game officials say poaching is only a minor threat to the sheep.

"Poachers are generally lazy," says Zitterkopf. "How many people are going to hike five miles and climb a damn mountain to poach an animal?"

Instead, the biggest threats remain disease, cougars and noxious weeds, such as thistle, that take over their ranges. And the irony is that when a herd thrives and grows too large, it becomes more susceptible to those dangers.

Clemans Mountain

Clemans Mountain is a tower of rock that leaps into the sky near the confluence of the Naches and Tieton rivers. When the herd there grew from a critically low 35 sheep in 1989 to more than 200 by this winter, biologists saw the opportunity to restock Chelan Butte.

The butte's 8,200-acre wildlife area is ideal for the sheep, biologists say. It has plenty of grazing land and room to hide from cougars, and perhaps most important, no significant flocks of domestic sheep.

Transplanting wild sheep has become a standard management tool. Last winter, 40 sheep were brought from Oregon and Nevada into Eastern Washington to bolster the genetic diversity of some herds. The last new herd the state started, in 1999, roams Lake Chelan's north shore. And the state hopes to start another herd in 2008, perhaps at Moses Coulee in Douglas County.

The base of Clemans Mountain last week took the look of a battlefield, complete with a makeshift hospital station. By the time it was over, the snowy field was a mash of mud, blood and tufts of wool.

More than 100 sheep and a trio of bull elk descended a game trail for winter feeding at the wildlife station.

But this time, a mysterious, tall corral had appeared — shrouded in a tarpaulin like a great Bedouin tent. Tempted by hay and grain, the bighorns ventured in. With a clank, the gate slammed shut and tarps flopped down.

Teams of strong men in hickory shirts and canvas coveralls disappeared inside. The sounds of battle rumbled forth — seemingly murderous crashes, thumps, curses and groans. Then a single sheep would emerge, its legs bound with a buckled strap, a black hood yanked over the animal's eyes in hopes of calming it.

Behind the curtain, it was a match of brute strength and will. The men came at the cornered ruminants with all the strength they could muster. They threw the weight of their bodies upon the animals, which bucked, kicked and thrashed as if in mortal combat. Some larger rams escaped. But most sheep finally succumbed and were pinned down.

It took three or four men to hold even a small bighorn down while veterinarians delivered injections of antibiotics and vitamins. Throats were swabbed and massive syringes were filled with samples of oxygen-rich blood, which sometimes spilled, staining the snow.

The trailers were then loaded, and the biologists steered toward Wenatchee, where the sheep were held overnight to settle them down.

To the satisfaction of biologists, not a single sheep was injured or died, unlike in some previous roundups using helicopters and nets.

A winding ride from Wenatchee to Chelan Butte the next morning became a convoy as wildlife agents and the curious came to see the spectacle of 35 wild sheep turned loose.

After a day in captivity, the bighorns were in no mood for congratulations.

The trailer gates opened with a clang, and as a single, strangely choreographed unit, the new Chelan Butte herd bolted.

In a blink, the last of their woolly white rumps vanished over a ridgetop.

And they were home.

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or