Feeding stations bring out bighorns

NACHES -- Even on a day with temperatures below freezing and low clouds clinging to the brown hillside, there's no sign of the Cleman Mountain bighorn sheep herd.

The days leading up to this were clear and sunny, mild almost, leaving no reason for the sheep to hang around, even for a handout.

Here, it's quiet except for the flutter of a few fluffed-up, dark-eyed juncos and the gravel moving under Bill McNamara's blue Jeep 4x4 as he pulls into the bighorn sheep feeding station.

McNamara hiked these rolling hills as a kid and like a lot of men who grew up in Central Washington, he hunted here, too. The only hunting the 83-year-old McNamara does now is with his camera. He loves to watch the wildlife and scans the top of the hills.

"It's gonna take snow," he says about bringing the bighorns back down to the feeding station.

He's right.

That was on a recent Tuesday and by Wednesday morning, after a light snowfall, about 50 or 60 of this bighorn herd are munching away on the alfalfa pellets left in the metal troughs at this somewhat unknown wildlife viewing outpost on the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. It sits in the opposite direction most people go when they hit the "Y" in the road at the junction of Highway 410 and U.S. 12.

Hobbyist photographer Charles Crendall of Yakima also knew it'd take snow to bring back the bighorns and arrived at the feeding station about dawn on the Wednesday.

"You have to be here early in the morning to see them jump, I think," says the 50-year-old Crendall, pointing his large camera at three rams running down the hillside.

But by midmorning, the scene is low-key. Every once in a while a couple of rams will butt heads, or a few more members of the herd will ramble down from the rocky ridge. Inevitably, as soon as you turn off your camera, the action momentarily picks up.

Patience is the name of the game when it comes to bighorn watching, which can be frustrating this time of year because the sheep don't always show up for the free grub.

"Sometimes they're here, sometimes they're not," Luis Medina says after he and Casey Kass, both Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife natural resources technicians, drive a green truck into an empty field earlier this month.

"If the ground's clear, they like to range," says Medina.

A couple of miles away, the wildlife viewing is more consistent -- and popular.

Right off U.S. 12 is the Oak Creek Wildlife Area headquarters and visitor center, where you can pop in just about any time during the winter months and see the massive Rocky Mountain elk that congregate there for the daily feedings.

The bighorn sheep aren't as predictable as the elk or as easily seen from the road. A lot of people don't even realize there is a bighorn feeding station, says Kass. It makes the calm of this small, out-of-sight gravel parking lot a nice contrast to the clamor of kids and car engines at the elk feeding station.

Problems for the sheep arise primarily from people. Domestic sheep grazing is a concern when it comes to spreading the Pasteurella haemolytica virus and dogs left unattended have fun chasing the bighorns around, which can stress out the herd. That's another reason the bighorns sometimes stay up in the hills, even on cold days. It's a good idea to leave your canine pal at home when visiting the sheep since they do not have the best relationship with dogs.

The feeding stations have a three-fold purpose: to supplement the food supply during the winter months, encourage the animals to congregate so biologists can monitor their health and provide wildlife viewing for nature lovers.

Beginning in late fall, Fish and Wildlife makes daily meal calls at seven sites -- not all are for public viewing. For the sheep, Medina and Kass distribute a little hay and three bags of alfalfa pellets among the troughs spread throughout the scrub brush -- as well as at one other very specific site.

"We put feed on the rock to get a good pose," Medina says with a laugh about the large boulder the rams will jump up on for the food, which can make for a stunning photo.

The daily feedings usually run through early March. But with nicer weather, says Medina, the bighorns would just as soon stay up in the hills.

"The animals pretty much tell us when they're done," says Kass.