It’s too damn bad Central Washington wolves didn’t kill and eat a diseased wandering domestic sheep because now a bighorn herd is under the gun.
The ewe in question may have gone at least 25 air miles off its federal grazing allotment, most likely through the Naneum Pack territory between Ellensburg and Wenatchee, across the Coluckum and descended towards the Columbia near Vantage where it came into contact with at least seven rams early this month.
Yesterday WDFW announced that 15 members of the Quilomene Herd now have to be killed and another 10 to 15 captured, all to figure out if the eastern Kittitas County bighorns have been infected with a deadly bacteria and more lethal removals are required to keep the sickness from spreading.
The ewe and rams were observed by an off-duty county deputy together Sept. 26 in a “remote” section of Gingko Petrified Forest State Park, where I-90 crosses the Columbia River.
The ewe was then lethally removed Oct. 6 and tested at Washington State University where it was determined it to be carrying Mycoplasma, a bacteria that causes pneumonia in bighorns and is often fatal.
This morning a very tight-lipped WDFW spokesman initially only stated that the ewe had come off “a federal lease nearby the state park,” but follow-up questions determined the grazing allotment to actually be on U.S. Forest Service lands, which are quite a ways to the west and northwest.
The nearest leases are 25 and 30-plus air miles away from the rough location where the ewe and rams were observed. (A request for a map marked with the exact spot was not immediately returned.)
Those allotments are known as Number 2 Canyon above Wenatchee, and Swauk and Virden between Wenatchee and Cle Elum.
A February 2016 risk assessment done for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest found that the Quilomene sheep were tied for the lowest likelihood among seven bighorn herds of coming in contact with domestic livestock grazing on the sprawling East Cascades forest.
“If we examined those bighorn sheep herds that were within 35km of an active sheep allotment we found the Chelan Butte, Cleman Mountain, Swakane, Tieton and Umtanum bighorn sheep herds may be expected to experience a disease outbreak within 50 years. In contrast, the Manson and Quilomene bighorn sheep herds would not be expected to experience a disease outbreak within 50 years,” write Andrea L. Lyons, William L. Gaines and James Begley of the Washington Conservation Science Institute.
In 2013, the Tieton Herd was completely removed to prevent an outbreak spreading to the Cleman Mountain Herd. In 2009, more than 100 members of the Umtanum Herd had to be killed or died of the disease.
With the Quilomene sheep, a WDFW spokesman reiterated that the agency and the ewe’s owner, who isn’t named, are “actively working … to reduce the potential for future interactions between domestic sheep and wild bighorns in this area.”
Along with killing bighorns outright, the bacteria can impact lamb survival rates for years. WDFW says there “is no treatment for bighorn sheep, and no preventative vaccine.”
The Quilomene Herd occupies some of the driest, ruggedest land in the state, the triple rain-shadowed breaks of the Columbia on the west side of the river from Vantage north to the Malaga area above Rock Island Dam.
Still, it’s one of the strongest groups in Washington, with 220 to 250 members – 50 of which roam the southern end of the range where the ewe contacted the rams. There are around 1,700 bighorns in around 17 herds across the Eastside, a WDFW webpage states.
The Quilomene sheep supported five special permits to hunt rams this season. Last year it was one of the most popular to put in for and on average required the second most points of any sheep hunt, 20, to be drawn.