BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An attack by two wolves panicked a flock of sheep and 143 died after they ran into a steep gully where they were crushed and suffocated, Idaho wildlife officials said Thursday.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services each confirmed the sheep deaths in mid-May in southwestern Idaho in foothills near Boise.
The foothills north of the city are popular for recreation such as mountain biking and hiking, and also have deer, elk and large predators such as bears, mountain lions and wolves. Wildlife Services typically kills five to 14 wolves annually in the foothills in response to livestock depredation.
“This sadly exemplifies why wolf management in Idaho can be so challenging,” Fish and Game Director Ed Schriever said in a statement. “People cherish the Foothills for its diversity of wildlife, along with the opportunities for grazing, recreation and other activities. In this instance, a pair of wolves caused a significant loss of sheep for a rancher, and despite our efforts as a department to reduce or prevent this, it can still occur, and we regret that rancher Frank Shirts and his herders had to deal with this loss.”
Fish and Game requested Wildlife Services kill the two wolves, but officials said they couldn't be found. It's not clear if the wolves are part of a larger pack.
The Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission, a state agency that has among its goals to promote public support for Idaho’s livestock industry, was the first state agency on Thursday to report the sheep deaths. In a morning news release, the commission said that Shirts reported that the attack took place during daylight.
“The wolves scared the hell out of (the sheep) and pushed them into that little canyon and piled them in there,” Shirts told the resources commission. “They didn’t consume anything. The sheep just suffocated in the pileup and died. We work to make things good for those sheep every day, so it’s a shame to lose them.”
The resources commission reported that two sheepherders who stay with the sheep 24 hours a day chased off the wolves. The commission said two Great Pyrenees guard dogs avoided the wolves and weren't injured.
Shirts said it's the worst incident of wolf predation he's experienced since wolves were released into central Idaho in 1995. He said he’ll seek compensation for the sheep through a depredation program.
Fish and Game said Idaho's wolf population is about 1,600 in the spring when pups are born and then drops to below 900 during late winter due to hunting, trapping and other wolf mortality causes.
Idaho lawmakers last year approved a law, backed by ranchers, greatly expanding wolf killing in what some lawmakers stated could reduce the wolf population by 90%. But wildlife managers have said a 90% reduction is unlikely. Backers said expanding wolf killing would reduce the wolf population and attacks on livestock while also boosting deer and elk herds.
Fish and Game said that since Jan. 1, Idaho hunters have killed 49 wolves statewide, while trappers have killed 81 and Wildlife Services another 31 wolves that were involved in killing livestock.
Last year, Fish and Game said, Idaho hunters and trappers killed 427 wolves, and 43 more were killed following livestock depredation by wolves. From 2017 to 2021, Fish and Game said, 324 wolves have been killed for preying on livestock.