WENATCHEE -- By the time bighorn sheep of the Swakane herd go into rut this month, a 9-mile fence from Rocky Reach to Spencer Canyon on Highway 97A north of Wenatchee will be finished.
That means the male sheep, running around looking to mate, and the female sheep who are being pursued, are far less likely to dash out onto the highway and get killed.
Since construction of the $2.8 million Highway 97A Wildlife Fence began three years ago, four sheep have been hit by cars and died on that stretch of roadway -- two of them in an area where the fence was not yet built, but will be this month. By comparison, eight sheep died on that section of road in 2008, and nine in 2009, before the first section of fence was built, according to the state Department of Transportation.
"It's gone from one of the heaviest kill areas to one of the lightest for deer," said Mike Andreini, DOT's assistant project engineer.
Overall, collisions with deer and sheep along that section of road dropped by 80 percent after the first section of fence was finished in December 2009. Eleven animals died in a 20-month period along that stretch since 2008, compared to an average of 40 each year.
So, have people who commute between the Wenatchee Valley and Entiat or Chelan noticed a difference?
"Oh my gosh, have I ever," said Chris Mallon, speech pathologist for the Eastmont School District, who lives in Entiat and has commuted through the dangerous stretch of highway for 30 years. She said she's not surprised to hear collisions with animals dropped by 80 percent. "I bet anybody from the Entiat Valley will attest to it."
"It's made a big difference," added Jane King, who travels from her East Wenatchee home to Entiat daily since becoming postmaster there in 2004. "I used to work up in Waterville and I thought that was treacherous. It was nothing like this side."
Andreini said until the state has a few more years worth of data, the DOT is reluctant to attribute all of the decline in road-killed animals to the fence. He said a new gravel pit that started up when construction began on the fence may be helping to keep animals away. And a fire last year left a bare swath of habitat, and may be contributing to low numbers of animal-vehicle collisions.
The fence line includes 11 cattle guards on roads and regularly-used driveways that were specially-designed for sheep and deer so vehicles can cross but animals can't.
After getting reports that sheep were getting across, the state modified the design twice, and even installed remote cameras to make sure it's working, Andreini said. David Volsen, state Department of Fish and Wildlife's district wildlife biologist in Wenatchee, said the fence cuts off very little habitat, and the deer and sheep still have adequate sources of water west of the fence. He said the fence has truly been a joint effort between Fish and Wildlife and DOT -- which has worked to accommodate changes -- and volunteer groups.
"The sportsmen have really stepped up. They've donated money, time and materials," he said.
Mallon said although she never hit a deer in the 30 years that she's made the commute, she has a friend who was rear-ended in that section, totaling her car.
She added that it's not just deer and sheep she's had to avoid, but also cars and people who have stopped to look at the wildlife, or take pictures.
King said a part of her will miss seeing so much wildlife on the road. She said she always left herself enough time to drive slowly through the area, and would also stop to take pictures.
"I used to take them to my father-in-law to see, and chit-chat about my commute," she said. But, she added, "The fence has done a great job."
Ron Bruno, president of the Wenatchee Sportsmen's Association, said his group pushed for the fence for four years before funding came through, so he's happy to see it appears to be working.
"I've had a number of people walk up and tell me, 'Thank you.' They feel so much better driving that highway," he said. "I can't help thinking how many people might have suffered injuries, and how much wildlife is still running around free because they didn't get hit."