TOPPENISH, Wash. – Pronghorn antelope are back in Washington state. Lewis and Clark spotted the sagebrush speedsters as the explorers crossed the Columbia Basin on their way to the Pacific. But subsequent settlement was not kind to America's only antelope. It disappeared from Washington more than a hundred years ago. Bringing the cute animals back to the Yakama Indian reservation has proven surprisingly controversial.
Tribal biologist Gabe Swan with radio tracking antenna - Photo by Tom Banse
Captured and tagged antelope await the beginning of their journey north to Washington back in January - Photo courtesy of SCI-Central Washington Chapter
98 pronghorn antelope have a new home on the range. Citizen volunteers and Yakama tribal members captured the antelope in northern Nevada in mid-January. A convoy transported the animals to south-central Washington. They were set loose into the night in the poetically named Horse Heaven Hills.
Gina King: "It was worrisome when we released them two coyote packs calling. Arlen started singing and they were singing back. The safari club members were looking at each other."
That's Yakama Nation wildlife program manager Gina King. We'll meet Arlen in a minute. No coyotes have managed to catch North America's fastest land mammal yet. King's own staff needs help keeping up with the antelope too. They fitted some of the relocated pronghorns with radio tracking collars.
The caramel colored pronghorns graze and play on treeless hillsides. Their white flanks match the snow-capped peak of Mt. Adams in the distance. Big game biologist Jim Stephenson postponed retirement in part so he could see this postcard pretty scene.
Jim Stephenson: "I couldn't really ask for more. Looks like they're doing good up there."
Gina King: "They're just a beautiful animal. They seem to fit in this setting. We are excited to have them back after so many years to see it come to fruition."
Indiscriminate hunting a century ago nearly wiped out pronghorn populations in the American West. They've bounced back most everywhere except in Washington.
Sportsmen's groups - led by the Shikar Safari Club International and Central Washington Chapter of Safari Club International - found common cause with the Yakama Nation to organize a transplant.
That tribal singer, Arlen Washines, says he's eager to hunt the antelope for food as soon as the reservation's herd is big enough.
Arlen Washines: "It was a food resource – a subsistence resource - that was lost. It had its place like all the foods have their place in our culture... Hopefully it will be a medicine for our people in the future, our children, to help instill in them the importance of our culture and our food traditions."
Washines considers the antelope "sacred". But the love for the animal is not universal, on or off the reservation. Ranchers have been the most vocal with their displeasure. Jack Field lobbies for the Washington Cattlemen's Association.
Jack Field: "Wildlife aren't going to recognize the reservation boundaries. The disease – if there is a disease vector - regardless of what it is, doesn't recognize boundaries."
The Washington State Senate took up the cattlemen's complaint. But legislators were frustrated to find they're virtually powerless to do anything. Republican state Senator Jim Honeyford says legally speaking the reservation is a "sovereign nation."
Senator Honeyford: "Even though they cross into the state of Washington but they don't set foot in the state of Washington. They're free to do whatever they want to do, and set them off on the reservation and they're free to roam. I think that's a huge loophole that needs to be addressed."
The tribe agrees it is important to keep animal diseases out of the Northwest. Yakama game biologist Jim Stephenson says brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis aren't a problem in Nevada where the pronghorns came from.
Jim Stephenson: "We did take blood samples from these animals and the tests are still pending. But the likelihood is very low."
Another concern is that pronghorns could get into crops. Neither the state nor the tribe is prepared to compensate farmers for that. Stephenson says wildlife biologists may haze the pronghorns away from farm fields. But so far that's not been a problem.
Photos for web-posting
(021511TB_Antelope1.jpg) By Tom Banse
Caption: Tribal biologist Gabe Swan with radio tracking antenna.
(012611TB_Pronghorns.jpg) Courtesy of SCI-Central Washington Chapter
Caption: Captured and tagged antelope await the beginning of their journey north to Washington back in January.
Yakama Nation wildlife program:
Lewis & Clark described antelope and native hunters in the Columbia Basin in an expedition journal entry from Feb. 22, 1806:
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