Topics of Conservation
The complex issue of the wolf
It’s been said that, in Idaho, the gray wolf debate is as much about people as it is about the animal itself. Ranchers, big game hunters, wildlife conservationists, politicians and government agents have all had a role—and an opinion—about the 1995 reintroduction of wolves into our state and the right of hunters and government agencies to hunt them. It’s a complex topic, often driven more by emotion than science. Ranchers scorn wolves for stalking and killing their livestock; sportsmen protest that wolves are decimating elk herds and ruining their hunting opportunities; and conservationists rejoice in the resurgence of wolf packs roaming Idaho’s wilderness while lamenting over them being hunted.
Amid the cacophony of wolf love, wolf hate, and wolf fear, there is Carter Niemeyer, a man credited as a key player in Idaho’s wolf reintroduction effort.
Niemeyer’s career as a wildlife manager began after college when he went to work for the Montana Department of Livestock, and later the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Damage Control Department where he
was responsible for predator management, including bears, coyotes, mountain lions, eagles and wolves.
In 1987, Montana ranchers began seeing wolves crossing in from Canada and, as the number of sightings grew, ranchers began to report kills of sheep and cattle. Niemeyer was called in to determine what exactly killed the livestock.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he laughed. “Nobody else really wanted to deal with it, and so I waded right in, probably because I didn’t have any big, preconceived ideas about wolves. What I found wasn’t a growing wolf problem as much as a growing level of hysteria over the mere presence of this animal.”
Niemeyer kept copious detailed records and became an expert on how predators kill. For example, the bear bites the top of the head and the wolf attacks from the rear, snagging the flank. The cause of death was important, as it would determine whether a wolf could be killed or relocated. It also established if the Defenders of Wildlife would compensate the livestock owner. Between 1987 and 2009, the Defenders paid out $1.4 million for dead livestock that authorities like Niemeyer had determined were killed by wolves.
“My career has been about the hands-on conflict resolution where wolves were actually suspected of killing livestock and my job was to solve that problem,” he said. “I would respond like a homicide detective. I’d examine the carcass, and do a necropsy where I would skin the animal and look at the hide for traumatic bites, hemorrhage and evidence of an injury that could have been inflicted by teeth. If I didn’t find that, the assumption was that something else caused the death.
“A lot of people assume if there are wolves howling up in the hills and there are wolf tracks on the road next to their house and they have a dead cow or sheep, the wolf must have done it. Most of the livestock I looked at died for reasons other than predation, and I stand by this fact today.”
By 1990, Niemeyer was a full-time wolf management specialist in Montana. His background and expertise eventually earned him a place on the team that traveled to Canada and Alaska in the mid-1990s to capture wolves for reintroduction into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.
Niemeyer has drug-darted wolves from helicopters, put radio collars on them, tied their feet with his own boot shoelaces, and even made a makeshift radio collar for a wolf pup out of a colleague’s elastic bra strap.
In 2000, he moved to Idaho to oversee wolf recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and retired in 2006. His recent memoir, “Wolfer,” gives an inside look at the reintroduction of the gray wolf and the 25 years he spent in the world of federal predator control, during which he trapped about 300 wolves and killed 14.
If you Google ‘wolf reintroduction’ you’re likely to find at least a few blogs or websites that alternately call Niemeyer a wolf champion and a wolf murderer, depending on who’s doing the writing.
That Niemeyer has earned both praise and vilification illustrates how he has tried to work with all players to resolve wolf conflicts. To him, wolves are neither the devil incarnate nor man’s best friend; however, he stands by his belief that wolves are not the problem that many make them out to be.
“Yes, some people actually do have trouble with wolves, and that should be dealt with, and quickly,” he said. “I don’t have trouble with the idea that a pack here or there needs to be killed. But, most wolves don’t cause people any kind of trouble, and that is a fact.”
Wolves and Livestock
Niemeyer, a 6-foot-5, blonde-headed 65-year-old who speaks with a slight rural drawl, believes that people on both sides of wolf reintroduction have more in common than they realize.
“The misinformation and lawsuits and bad feelings have gone on so long that they absolutely don’t trust each other,” he said. “But, everyone on both sides of the wolf issue is passionately committed to wildlife and wild places. That’s some pretty big common ground. The one thing everyone agrees on is that wolves are here to stay—whether they like it or not.”
Niemeyer notes that the state of Idaho set the tone by opposing the release of wolves within its borders. “The governor and the legislature felt it wasn’t advisable. To them, it was going to be a major problem for sportsmen, eating all the deer and elk, and the fear that wolves would kill all the livestock,” he said. “Idaho has well-documented contempt for the federal government, so the feds reintroducing wolves was like throwing gasoline on a bonfire.”
This isn’t the first time in history that Idahoans have worked to keep wolves out of the state. Back in the 1930s, native wolves were deliberately extirpated in the western U.S. because they were thought to be the cause of extensive livestock losses. By the time wolves were protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, they had been eradicated from the lower 48 states, except for a few hundred that inhabited northeastern Minnesota.
“A claim to fame by some of the old pioneers is, ‘My granddaddy killed the last wolf,’ and they’re happy about that, it was an accomplishment,” said Niemeyer. “So people feel it’s almost an insult to Granddad to put wolves back where they got rid of them for a reason. Then there’s a resentment of the federal government for bringing them back in the first place. It’s that Western culture saying, ‘This is livestock- grazing country.’”
Niemeyer likes to remind people that a good portion of the U.S. is covered in federal lands. “The land belongs to you and me and everyone, so we can’t just look at things in this simple fashion, ‘Well, this is Idaho, we grow livestock here and agriculture is number one.’ What I mean is that if you really want to take a vote in this country, the wild things and places would win. Americans want these places and the animals that go with them.”
Niemeyer understands that people are afraid of wolves, but said some of the wild stories he’s heard about wolf encounters are more myth than fact and perhaps designed to fuel the fear of wolves.
“I’ve heard stories about people shooting their way out of the woods with automatic weapons, and getting chased into their pickup by wolves. Stories like, ‘I shot the wolf; it was running at me and I dropped it with a shot as it fell at my feet.’ I tell you that if a wolf knew you were there and you jumped up and yelled ‘Aha!’ they’re going to go the other way,” he said, waving his hands in the air to illustrate his point.
“Look back on the history of wolves and humans living together. Wolves were never exterminated from Canada and Alaska and they haven’t been killing people there in all those decades,” Niemeyer said.
He speculates that because wolves have been absent from the Idaho landscape since the 1930s, generations are unfamiliar with the animal. “So there’s this fear and misunderstanding that goes back to the time of European settlers and a lot of myth and fairy tales and stories about wolves and werewolves,” he said. “Yes, they have big teeth and they can bite, like a dog. But under normal circumstances, they will flee rather than fight, if they’re not cornered or in some confined situation where they can’t escape.
“I sympathize with people and I get impatient sometimes but the fear of wolves is so unfounded.”
Niemeyer continued, “I’ve worked with wild wolves for 25 years. I’ve been in pursuit of them, walked within six feet of them, looked in their dens where their pups were. I’ve never had a single close call. I’ve never been bit. I’ve never been in a dangerous situation with wolves. Are they going to stand and look at you sometimes? Certainly. They’ll be curious what you are. But once they figure out you’re a human, they’re gone.
“I absolutely dismiss and disbelieve the people who say they are having these close calls,” he said.
Hunters and Wolves
Niemeyer said he used to be a hardcore hunter and trapper, but that the sport has been “hijacked by people who have blown the wolf issue out of proportion.”
“If I want an elk, I’m going to go get one, and if I can’t find one, I’m not going to blame wolves,” he said. “I just need to do better the next day, or try something different. I need to be as good of a hunter as the wolf.”
Although some Idahoans may see wolves as nuisance predators, Niemeyer points out their intrinsic ecological value. “Wolves cull the herds, and keep them healthy. They kill the sick and elderly and, of course, they kill the young, too, but there’s an effect where the herd is kept healthy and fleet-footed and tuned up to predation,” he said.
At the end of 2011, Idaho Fish and Game biologists documented 101 remaining Idaho wolf packs with an estimated population of 746 wolves. Niemeyer believes even if that number went way down, the wolves will still likely thrive.
“Wolf management is an attempt to balance wolf numbers with deer and elk herds,” said Niemeyer. “According to research, you can kill as much as 35 percent (of wolves) per year without harming the population.
“So, am I concerned about the wolf population declining because of hunting?” Niemeyer asks rhetorically. “I think there could be a temporary decline followed by reproduction, so they’ll sustain themselves. I think wolves are going to do just fine in Idaho.”