Washington pronghorn release raises concerns

Feb 11, 2011

Nearly 100 Nevada pronghorn found a new home last month, relocating to the Yakama reservation in central Washington. The capture and subsequent release of the animals was the last step in a five-year effort by the Yakama Nation to return the once native species to the region. The relocation project was largely funded by the central Washington chapter of Safari Club International (SCI), a nationwide hunter advocacy and conservation group, with additional backing from the Shikar Safari Club.

Commonly called antelope throughout the West, pronghorn actually bear no relation to their African namesakes. They are, in fact, the only species within the genus Antilocarpa. Native to the western U.S., pronghorn are present in sufficient numbers to make hunting them possible in every western state except Washington, where they are nonexistent. Though few in Washington are openly against returning pronghorn to the state, the method under which this transfer occurred has some state officials and agriculture groups concerned.

According to SCI members, the decision to partner with the Yakama Nation came following frustrated attempts to partner with the state of Washington with the same goal in mind. "We did a habitat assessment, and found we had habitat that would support (pronghorn)," said Donny Martorello, special species section manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WFDW).

"At that point, we said that we needed to do a full EIS [Envionmental Impact Statement] and follow NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] procedure," he added. "We knew that there were potential issues with crop damage and livestock, and there are also issues with damage to the flora of the shrub steppe communities that these creatures inhabit."

Faced with the hefty cost of this analysis, SCI declined to invest in the project, pointing out that, were they to foot the bill, the state still could not guarantee that any pronghorn would ever be released. Instead, SCI chose to focus their efforts on the Yakama reservation as a way to circumvent the state regulations. Under the U.S. Constitution, reservations such as the Yakama are referred to as "Dependent Sovereign Nations," a designation that confers certain rights as a separate nation within the U.S. Among other things, this designation means freedom from the EIS and NEPA analysis restraints that the states must follow.

"We have no jurisdiction over what they bring onto their lands," said Martorello.

According to Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, this regulatory freedom creates a loophole that could possibly affect animal health over a wider area.

"The issue that we raised concerned disease," said Field. "We wanted to ensure that those animals will all be tested for brucellosis and tuberculosis before entering the state."

Because they have an international border as well as a seaport, Washington has one of the highest levels of livestock importation in the nation. Due to the increased disease concern resulting from so much traffic, the state also has some of the toughest import regulations. Regulations that, Field argues, are of little use if tribal lands are exempt.

"What good does it do to have rules and regulations if we’re not all following them?" he said. "I can respect their need for sovereignty, but that’s a very different issue from the introduction of wildlife or livestock that may have a large impact around the state."

Tribal members disagree, pointing out on their website that, like Washington, Nevada is classified as a "TB free" state; and that of the nearly 8,000 pronghorn tested for brucellosis over the years, only one showed a slight possibility of having the disease. Washington State Veterinarian Leonard Eldridge agrees that the chances for disease transmission are probably very slim. However, in a statement to the state’s senate Agricultural and Rural Economic Development Committee last Tuesday, Eldridge pointed out that low risk is not equivalent with no risk.

"We’ve heard a lot of folks tell us that not only is transmission risk low, there’s probably no risk at all. However, I can remember back when authorities also told us that elk couldn’t give brucellosis to cattle."

In his statement, Eldridge also pointed out that the Yakama Nation had initially approached his office to determine if testing should be done.

"Although WSDA [Washington State Department of Agriculture] has no authority on the Yakama Nation, we are pleased to work with the tribe on recommending testing that will protect our resident livestock," he said.

At the time, it was recommended that the nation perform brucellosis and tuberculosis testing on all animals prior to their introduction. Although he has reason to believe that some testing has occurred, Eldridge indicated that no notice to that effect has been provided to WSDA. Earlier this year, according to Eldridge, the Yakama Nation did make a request for state entry permits, which would have been a requirement under normal state law.

"I don’t issue permits unless there is negative testing, or the animals can be quarantined at a holding facility. Neither was the case, so I didn’t issue a permit, and I understand that they entered anyway," he said, adding; "We would have issued a permit, had they met the requirements."

Field worries that their concerns regarding disease transmission are being marginalized in order to speed introduction, and Eldridge points out that disease transmission from wildlife to livestock species is a significant problem elsewhere in the nation.

"Michigan has TB in their wildlife, which spreads to their livestock," he says. "We don’t have that here, and we want it to stay that way."

According to Field, if Washington were to lose its "TB free" status, it would result in an additional $5 to $8 per head in testing costs to producers marketing their cattle out of state. "It could really hamper our industry," he said.

Aside from disease concerns, others wonder how the animals will be handled when they spread beyond the confines of the reservation. Pronghorn in other states are notorious consumers of crops when foraging gets tough, and farm groups worry that they will become a problem if they are too prolific. According to WDFW’s Martorello, though there is no hunting season, pronghorn are listed under state regulations as a game animal, allowing a certain degree of latitude with regard to how they may be handled. "If the pronghorn were to come off the reservation, which is probably inevitable at some point, they become property of the state," he says.

"It’s no different than moose wandering in from Idaho. They would be managed as a game animal. We’re going to be gearing up to get ready for that, but I don’t expect to see them for a few years." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent