Reviving an ancient cultural tradition, two hunters have become the first on the Colville reservation to legally take a bighorn sheep from tribal lands in something over 100 years. It’s a small but significant start in rebuilding a population of sheep that historically was important for Native people in north-central Washington.
Michael Bearcub and Jordan Leskinen won the right to take down one of the sheep from among more than 1,500 applicants. Leskinen filled the tag of his grandmother, as permitted by tribal regulations to allow elders equal subsistence opportunities.
“Bighorn sheep are back on historical range,” said Eric Krausz, who heads up the reservation’s bighorn program. “What’s special is, there are twelve tribes that were placed here on the Colville reservation, and most of those tribes’ history is that bighorn sheep were part of their lifestyle.”
Bighorns hold much historical significance, said tribal member and Wildlife Program Manager Richard Whitney to Indian Country Today Media Network. Of supreme importance for hundreds of years, they all but disappeared as settlers came in, he said.
“It was most likely the arrival of domestic livestock brought in by settlers that caused bighorns to disappear,” Whitney said. “Domestic sheep and goats carry diseases that bighorns get. Basically the bighorns were extirpated from our area, probably winking out in the 1800s.”
Bighorns had been important for subsistence for more than just their meat, Whitney said. Their horns were used in making bows for hunting and utensil-like spoons or ladles and hides for clothing.
“Every part of the animal was used,” he noted.
Two herds exist within the reservation. The hunt was limited to the Hellgate herd, which began in 2009 when bighorns were brought in from elsewhere.
“We worked with the State of Washington on all our translocations,” Whitney said.
Some of those animals came from the Yakama reservation, which has a large enough herd to allow some to be relocated to the Colville reservation. A very small herd was first discovered in the 1970s or 80s near Omak Lake. That population was top-heavy with rams, so reproduction was very limited. Krausz said that genetic work was done on other herds to determine where these sheep came from, and they were tested for some diseases.
“That’s when we began augmenting that population and added eighteen ewes,” Krausz said. “We now have upwards of fifty in that area.”
Bearcub incorporated both cultural integrity and respect for the animal and the hunt into his killing of a bighorn ram. Bighorns are often seen from boats on Lake Roosevelt, and hunting from a boat would likely have been easier, but that was not Bearcub’s goal.
“I wanted an actual hunt and wanted to earn a ram,” he said.
It took six days of hunting, working from roads on top while the sheep were lower down. Then, after downing a sheep, he had to pack it back uphill to his rig. Bearcub’s father accompanied him each day. One day Bearcub brought his whole family along, including his newborn son.
“His first hunt,” Bearcub said. “I’m glad he was part of it too.”
It’s traditional for a hunter to give his first deer away. Bearcub decided to follow that tradition with his first bighorn.
“I gave a lot of it away for people to try,” he said.
It’s also Bearcub’s first and last ram on this reservation, as a hunter can only take one bighorn in his lifetime, according to the permit parameters. Bearcub is having a European mount done to commemorate his hunt.
The odds of having one’s name drawn to hunt were daunting. Two permits attracted 1,583 applicants.
Bighorn populations are increasing, which bodes well for future hunts. With 170 animals observed in the Hellgate herd last winter, “it could be over 200 now,” Krausz said. “I’d like to see us get to where we can allow a good annual harvest and have that population functioning as a source for other areas on the reservation where we can think about trying to transplant bighorn sheep.”
More habitat exists that could support bighorns within the reservation, but the concern is domestic animals. “When you manage bighorn sheep you can’t allow them to intermingle with domestic sheep or goats,” Whitney said. “One of our big goals in the wildlife department is to restore native populations of species. It makes me happy we can restore those populations and they can become part of our subsistence culture again.”