BOISE — A shotgun-wielding motorized parachutist fired on a pack of wolves earlier this year from the eastern Idaho sky, something forbidden even under a state permit that allows aerial gunning of foxes and coyotes.
Carl Ball, a sheep rancher, was flying his aircraft June 5 near St. Anthony above a 160-acre sheep pen when he saw at least four wolves, according to an Idaho Department of Fish and Game law enforcement report obtained Thursday by the Associated Press.
Ball reported he shot at the wolves after they’d already left the pen and said he believed one animal outfitted with a radio collar had been killed, though state and federal wildlife officials who arrived hours later never found a wolf carcass.
“He shot the wolf at least two times on subsequent flyovers. He believed the wolf had crawled under some brush and died,” regional conservation officer John Hanson wrote in his report. “He has a hunting license, pilot’s license and an aerial gunning permit from the Department of Agriculture.”
Four years ago, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho’s congressional delegation and sheep ranchers persuaded Federal Aviation Administration officials to allow licensed pilots to shoot coyotes and other wild predators while flying overhead in ultralight flying machines.
Rifle- and pistol-packing pilots of dirigibles, balloons, gliders, flying trikes, gyroplanes and powered parachutes can take a few hours of instruction and get an Idaho Sheep Commission-issued permit to shoot varmints from the heavens.
But even though the federal government earlier this year lifted Endangered Species Act protections from more than 1,000 wolves in Idaho and Montana, and both states have legal hunting seasons, that’s only for people shooting from the ground or trees.
Blasting wolves from the sky remains off limits because state wildlife managers consider them big game animals, not predators.
Ball didn’t return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.
But state Sen. Jeff Siddoway, a Republican from Terreton who owns the 160-acre sheep pen where the incident occurred, said Ball called him that morning from a cell phone while circling above the wolves with his gun loaded with No. 4 shot. Siddoway, in turn, contacted big game manager Brad Compton of the Fish and Game Department and contends he was told shooting a wolf from a powered parachute was allowed under a valid aerial gunning permit.
“He said, ‘Go ahead,’” Siddoway recalled. “We do it at our leisure for coyotes. This was just the first time we did it for a wolf.”
It wasn’t until later in the day, Siddoway maintains, that another state official informed him the permit didn’t cover aerial wolf gunning.
Compton didn’t immediately return a phone call, but Jim Unsworth, Fish and Game’s deputy director, said his agency most certainly didn’t give Siddoway the green light to shoot wolves from the sky.
“Brad or I probably told him he could legally protect his livestock,” Unsworth said. “But I don’t think anybody told him to shoot it out of a powered parachute.”
The state agency investigated the incident, Unsworth said, but opted to drop the case, in part because no dead wolf was ever found.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus in Renton, Wash., said his agency wasn’t aware of the incident.
Wildlife activists said the confusion over whether wolves are legitimate aerial gunning targets underscores the absurdity of allowing people to use kit-built and experimental flying contraptions to kill animals.
“The fact that wolves have been delisted, people probably believe they can just go after them now,” said Wendy Keefover-Ring, the Denver-based coordinator of a national coalition of environmental groups aiming to halt aerial shooting. “We have the confluence of two bad policies coming together: the new allowances (for airborne hunting) and also the delisting of wolves under the Endangered Species Act.”
Meanwhile, Siddoway is planning to introduce a bill in the Idaho Legislature next year to expand animals covered by the aerial permits to include wolves, too. The wolves didn’t kill any of his rams that June morning, Siddoway concedes, but more than 100 of his roughly 18,000 ewes, lambs and rams in Idaho and Wyoming have been killed by the big predators this year.
“It’s insane that I would have to ask for permission over my own ground,” he said.