Pronghorn antelope one day could again roam swaths of Eastern Washington, although not as soon as longtime supporters of reintroduction have hoped.
Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife recently began the process to develop an environmental impact statement on the feasibility of reintroducing the native species.
Pronghorns have been extirpated from the state since the mid-19th century. The department made four releases of transplanted pronghorns in the state from the 1930s to 1960s, but a population never was sustained.
But the possible reintroduction of the species is included in the department's new 2009-2015 game management plan, said Donny Martorello, manager of the carnivore, furbearer and special species division.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife was approached at least four years ago by Safari Club International, a wildlife conservation and hunting group, about the possibility of reintroducing pronghorns in Eastern Washington, said Joe Greenhaw of Safari's Seatte Puget Sound chapter and a club liaison to the department.
Safari Club helped fund a habitat assessment study that found there were areas suitable in Eastern Washington for pronghorns, and has put up thousands of dollars more to pay for the environmental impact statement, Greenhaw said.
Safari Club also has set aside nearly $100,000 to help pay for the transplanting of pronghorns, said Gary Tennison, the group's regional representative.
Club members are frustrated by the delays in moving forward.
"We've been waiting on this for three years and it seems the hangup is in Olympia," Greenhaw said. "We should have been releasing pronghorns this year."
A biologist Safari Club hired to scope potential release sites looked at seven to nine locations and found three on public land that were ideal, Greenhaw said. If the state ultimately approves reintroduction, he said 30 pronghorns per year could be released over three years at each of the three sites.
The most pronghorn-friendly area is from Vantage to the Army's sprawling Yakima Training Center in part because of its shrub steppe vegetation, Martorello said.
"It's the best contiguous piece of habitat, and with the rolling hills, it's perfect for them," he said.
The environmental impact statement is expected to take at least a year to complete, and it will examine several critical questions about pronghorns, Martorello said.
One is how pronghorns would affect the greater ecosystem and other big-game species. Another question for the department is what impact their grazing habits would have on agriculture, Martorello said.
"We recognize that crop damage is the biggest single issue," Martorello said. "If we can develop a mechanism for dealing with the crop damage issue in a fair way, that will be a major factor in the decision."
Even if pronghorns are reintroduced, it will take time for them to reproduce in sufficient numbers to allow limited hunting. "It's hard to know if there will even be a sustainable population," Greenhaw said.
The pronghorn, which is found throughout the western U.S., is the second-fastest land mammal in the world - the cheetah is the fastest - and can reach speeds of over 53 mph, according to National Geographic magazine's website.