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Rancher loses sheep to wolves

BOISE, Idaho -- A sheep rancher in central Idaho said 34 lambs and ewes were killed by wolves and he's missing another 124 animals he fears also fell victim to the predators.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has authorized federal trappers to shoot two wolves, or half the new Lick Creek pack, made up of four to five adult or sub-adult wolves. It may be establishing itself in a rugged, mountainous area of spruce and red fir on U.S. Forest Service territory just southeast of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

Rancher Ron Shirts, a 39-year-old Weiser resident, said he began finding dead sheep from his flock of 1,000 ewes and 1,500 lambs starting Aug. 26 after noticing many were missing when he began collecting them to be sold.

Idaho reintroduced the predator to its central mountains starting in 1995 and now has an estimated 600 wolves. They sometimes attack sheep and cattle, in addition to wildlife including deer and elk.

Control actions aren't uncommon: in 2004, the state's largest wolf pack at the time, with nine members, was exterminated after authorities said it killed more than 100 sheep near McCall in central Idaho.

"This is the first wreck we've had," said Shirts, who has grazed sheep north of the towns of Weiser and Payette along U.S. Highway 95 for 25 years.

Herders found half-eaten carcasses scattered across a mountainside overgrown with trees and brush.

"You might walk a couple hundred yards, find three or four more," Shirts said. "There were enough there, you had to keep hunting them down. The killing had to have gone on for a long time."

Shirts said he wants Idaho to kill the entire pack, not just two wolves.

But Steve Nadeau, the statewide large carnivore manager for Idaho Fish and Game, said his agency is still trying to determine how many wolves were involved in the attacks.

Though Idaho in January assumed day-to-day control of wolves in the central part of the state, the animals are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and control actions must be justified, Nadeau said.

"If you can get two animals returning to the carcasses, your chances of catching offending animals are pretty good," Nadeau said. "We'll continue to remove as many wolves as necessary to control the conflict, until the killing is done."

In all of 2005, 27 wolves were killed legally by officers and ranchers, with about that number already killed in 2006.

In 2005, federal wildlife agents investigated 93 rancher complaints, with wolves confirmed or suspected of having killed 181 sheep, 18 calves, six cows and 11 dogs. That compares to 2003, when wolves were blamed for killing 118 sheep, 13 calves and six dogs.

Every year, thousands of sheep also fall victim to coyotes, Nadeau said, adding last week in eastern Idaho, a black bear caused the deaths of about 100 sheep.

Shirts will be compensated for losses, Nadeau said.

Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that maintains a fund for ranchers hit by wolf predation, has paid out nearly $700,000 since 1987. It covers 100 percent of market value of confirmed wolf kills, and 50 percent of probable wolf kills. And the Idaho Office of Species of Conservation has a separate $100,000 annual fund, which covers the remaining 50 percent of probable kills, and other cattle and sheep that officials determined were lost due to wolf predation, Nadeau said.

Idaho and Montana, with federally approved wolf management plans, are pushing the U.S. Interior Department to remove federal wolf protections in the two states, but the agency has so far balked because neighboring Wyoming's management plan is mired in legal battles.

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