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Baaaack and 'bea-ewe-tiful': Idaho's annual spring sheep crossing

The animals sheepishly made their way across Highway 55 and Beacon Light Road.

IDAHO, USA — Every year in Idaho, through the spring and summer, ranchers move their sheep up into the Boise National Forest. For drivers who are unaware of the crossing it can be quite a sight, and a headache. 

Today, families, friends and wooly four-legged animals were all at the intersection of Highway 55 and Beacon Light Road. The crowd of about 300 people lined the streets and waited under cloudy skies. Then, as the sheep began moving closer to the crossing, the sun broke through the clouds, creating a beautiful springtime view.

As the 2,500 sheep got closer to Highway 55, you could hear the lead ewe's bell, the pounding of their hooves, and their boisterous bleats.

Steve Stuebner is the spokesman for the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission. Stuebner says the crowd of about 300 people is close to the largest turnout he's seen in 15 years of being a part of this event.

"I think it's sort of a page out of our history is what's appealing to them. It's a novelty. Maybe they've never seen anything like that before, but it's real typical in Idaho. When you're out in rural parts of Idaho in the spring and summer, or fall, you could run into a cattle drive or a sheep drive, he said."

Every year, the crossing causes a little bit of traffic and a lot of people that want to see the event. Although it is Idaho, which is highly agrarian, it is not every day that one can view a blanket of sheep ambling across a highway.

The sheep crossing and move up to higher elevations is a tradition dating back around 100 years and having the sheep graze in forest is actually helpful to prevent fires and invigorates plant growth. 

These sheep in particular, are owned by Frank Shirts from Wilder. Stuebner said the sheep will continue their journey through the foothills for a few weeks, then they'll move into the Boise National Forest, where they'll spend the summer.

Stuebner added there are 2 guard dogs and usually 2 or 3 herders with each band of sheep. Since the guard dogs are in place to protect the sheep, you or your dog may seem like a threat if you come across them in the foothills.

"Make sure you have your leash with you, no matter if it's an off-leash trail, or an on-leash trail. And if you see the shape, just be sure to leash your dog. And that really diffuses any situation," Stuebner said. "But, if the dogs are running loose, around the sheep, the Great Pyrenees guard dogs are going to see them as a threat, and they're not going to kill the dogs, they're just doing to definitely move them away from the sheep."

Stuebner added some tips on what to do if you come across a herd on your mountain bike, "The best thing to do is get off your bike and walk through the sheep, and then continue your ride," he said.

"If the guard dogs approach you, keep your bike between you and the dog, talk to the dog, let them know you're human...You know, walk through the sheep, and then continue your ride," he said. "I've personally encountered sheep many times, and I've done that, and it really works."

Stuebner said that if you see the Great Pyrenees dogs, they are not lost, the herd they're guarding is likely nearby. If you'd rather avoid the possibility of seeing the sheep, and the possible conflict, Stuebner said Polecat Trail, Hillside to Hollow, Seaman's Gulch and western trails, shouldn't see any sheep. If you do want to try and run into the sheep, he said Hulls Gulch and some of the military reserve trails may be good spots to see them in the next week or two.

Sheep are not native to the state, but the animal was brought in sometime in the 1800's. Since their introduction to Idaho, sheepherders and farmers have been moving their herds every spring to higher elevations all over the state.

It is quite a sight to see and, for those who missed it, the herds are brought back down every fall.

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