In an innovative move toward wildlife conservation, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has teamed up with the Tulalip Tribes to explore the use of drones for monitoring bighorn sheep populations in South Central Washington. 

Groundbreaking Initiative Set to Take Off 

Scheduled to kick off this April and extend through December 2024, the joint initiative will deploy drones over the Umtanum, Selah Butte, and Cleman Mountain herds. These flights, operated by certified staff from both WDFW and the Tulalip Tribes with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Small Unmanned Aircraft System Remote Pilot certification, will adhere strictly to FAA regulations governing drone flights. 

Probing the Potential of Drone Technology 

The primary aim of this groundbreaking research is to evaluate the efficacy of drones in gathering accurate counts of bighorn sheep. Moreover, the project seeks to ascertain whether drone survey data can enhance existing methods employed by the Department for bighorn sheep surveys. Additionally, researchers will assess the feasibility of identifying signs of pneumonia infections in bighorn sheep through drone imagery. 

Voices of Excitement and Optimism 

"This collaboration between WDFW and the Tulalip Tribes represents an exciting opportunity to delve into the potential of drone technology for wildlife monitoring," expressed Ross Huffman, WDFW South Central Region Wildlife Program manager. "Drones offer a promising alternative to conventional helicopter surveys, minimizing disturbances to wildlife and ensuring the safety of our staff." 

Flight Plans and Safety Measures 

Flight schedules will be contingent upon various factors, including weather conditions and the absence of interference with public activities such as hunting. Pilots will maintain visual contact with their drones throughout flights to promptly address any potential disruptions to wildlife or human activities. In cases where flight conditions become unfavorable, pilots will promptly ground the drones, prioritizing safety and responsibility. 

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Conservation Without Compromise 

Importantly, this initiative carries no expectation of area closures or significant public disruptions. Instead, it represents a forward-thinking approach to wildlife conservation, particularly concerning the preservation of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep populations. Recognized as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need under Washington's State Wildlife Action Plan, bighorn sheep face threats from disease and habitat fragmentation, underscoring the urgency of effective monitoring and management strategies. 

 A Pledge to Protect Wildlife and Ecosystems  

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife remains steadfast in its commitment to safeguarding fish, wildlife, and ecosystems while fostering sustainable recreational and commercial opportunities for all. This collaborative endeavor stands as a testament to the Department's dedication to innovative solutions in the pursuit of conservation excellence. 

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