HERMISTON — Most of the humans are gone from a U.S. government depot in Eastern Oregon where a stockpile of chemical weapons has been destroyed. Now the pronghorn are gone, too.
A helicopter herded 38 of the antelope into a corral trap at the Umatilla Chemical Depot on Wednesday, and the herd was later driven to a wildlife area about 300 miles south in Malheur County for release.
Since 1969, antelope had lived behind fences at the 19,000-acre government facility in northeast Oregon as a nursery herd, helping to rebuild populations of the species native to the Columbia Plateau and high-desert shrubland of the region.
Oregon now has about 25,000 pronghorn.
But the depot finished incinerating a stockpile of nerve agents in 2011. The plant is being dismantled and its workers dismissed a group at a time. The fences are to come down, and wildlife officials said it wouldn’t do to have the antelope roaming the farms and industries nearby.
Maintenance worker Mike Morehead, one of the few who remain, recalled watching the animals at the facility, which once used an antelope image on its logo. He said mating season was particularly active.
“The bucks would all jockey for position,” he said. “It was a big chasing game most of the time.”
Pronghorn are the fastest ungulates in North America, capable of hitting 40 mph, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a press release about the move.
A total of 37 pronghorn were released after the trip to the Beulah Wildlife Management Unit near Ontario — eight adult males, 22 adult females and seven young. One animal in poor condition was euthanized, the agency said.
Plans for the depot site include a wildlife refuge of 5,600 acres.
The plot is one of the largest examples of shrub steppe habitat remaining in the region and good for burrowing owls and other species.