Yakama Nation Awaits Pronghorn Births

Jack McNeel
3/18/11

They’ve given them a home where the buffalo roam. Now Yakama Nation leaders are waiting to see if the antelope will play. Will the 97 pronghorns imported from Nevada feel at home enough on the 1.2 million–acre reservation to reproduce?

The animals, which generally give birth to twins in June or July, were set loose in mid-January. Roughly 400,000 acres of shrub-steppe rangelands approximates the antelopes’ typical habitat. They have settled on about 40,000 acres on the easternmost part of the reservation. The tribal program is being paid for with $25,000 donated by Shikar Safari Club International and the Central Washington Chapter of Safari Club International.

Washington State has not been opposed to reintroduction efforts and in fact has conducted habitat assessment work related to antelope. But the state did not have the money or manpower to complete the necessary environmental impact statements, so the project had been on hold until the tribe took matters into its own hands as independent nations are permitted to do.

Historical details on the antelope in this region of Washington are scarce. Archeologists have unearthed antelope bones dating back 500 to 13,000 years. Lewis and Clark also reported glimpsing the animals on the Columbia plain in Washington during the explorers’ journey in the early 1800s.

Arlen Washines, the tribe’s former wildlife program manager, has spent many years hoping to restore antelope to the reservation and has heard antelope stories from many elders.

“The primary one was Watson Totus. He was a longtime chairman for the Yakama Nation and [was] my uncle,” he said. “In the late 70’s, when I returned from college, I had a chance to sit and visit with him. I asked him about hunting and animals, and he told me a story about the antelope. I asked if antelope were here and he said, ‘Oh yeah. When I was a little boy I would sit [on what is now Cherry Hill in Granger, Wash.] with older family members and wait for the antelope to come in the evening to the Yakima River, and they would shoot them, take them home and prepare them, dry them, and eat them.’?”

Washines’s mother also had some antelope anecdotes.

“They had the last of them on the Yakima firing center,” he said. “That’s north of the reservation.”

Antelope meat was not used for ceremonial purposes in those earlier years; rather it was a subsistence food, Washines said.

Jim Stephenson is the Yakama Nation’s big game biologist and credits Washines with the antelopes’ re-introduction.

“He was our program manager when this project began,” Stephenson said. “It’s really because of him [that] the Yakamas have pronghorns back on the reservation. I supported it and worked hard on it, but it was his idea, and it finally came to fruition.”

Indeed, Washines led tribal members in a song to bless and welcome the animals back to the reservation as they were being released.

“It was one of our Washat songs from our longhouse,” Washines said, explaining that it’s one his uncle Watson Totus would sing every Sunday after the meal. “That song came to me. It’s kind of like a prophecy, kind of like the future being told.”

Stephenson said the analysis began about six years ago as to the compatibility of the reservation for pronghorn antelope.

“We looked at all the habitat requirements,” he said. “All fell within the parameters of what antelope can handle.”

Pronghorns have little dietary overlap with deer, elk, horses or cattle and rarely carry diseases that affect cattle, all positive considerations for reestablishing them on the reservation.

There is some competition, primarily from the wild horses that abound on the reservation, but Stephenson said that about 40,000 acres on the easternmost part of the range “is fenced and cross-fenced to the point where it’s pretty pristine—good habitat for antelope. There are few or no horses in those pastures. We’re working hard on trying to resolve our horse problem so [that] in the next few years we may have lots more antelope habitat.”

Some fences were modified to allow pronghorns to pass underneath, since they don’t jump fences as deer do. Stephenson said the animals seem to be adapting very well to their new home.

“They’ve kind of settled into one area about five or six miles from the release site,” he said. “They’ve found a place they like, for now anyway.”

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