Killing Wolves in the Pursuit of Their Salvation
July 14, 2002
Wildlife: As ranks swell, some run afoul of ranchers. To protect the species, individual canines are shot.
By ELIZABETH SHOGREN, Times Staff Writer STANLEY, Idaho - At every stage of the seven-year federal effort to reintroduce the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies, Carter Niemeyer has been there.
He trapped wolves in Canada and brought them south to their new homes. When one pack was getting into trouble with ranchers, he camped in the open with them, listening to them howl all night before transporting several farther from the temptations of livestock. When ranchers wrongly accused them of killing lambs or calves, he argued their cases and exonerated many.
Along the way, this gentle 6-foot, 512-inch giant developed a deep affection for the animals he calls "big, happy oafs."
So it was with a heavy heart that Niemeyer, 55, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official in charge of reintroducing the wolf to central Idaho, ordered the killing of the Whitehawk pack this spring -and then carried out the order himself.
As he did, Niemeyer plunged into the heart of the most contentious aspects of reintroducing wolves to the Northern Rockies.
Having been all but wiped out by the 1920s, the wolves have come back faster and proved to be hardier than federal wildlife officials dreamed possible. In central Idaho alone, the population has swollen from the 35 reintroduced in 1995 and 1996 to 261 at last official count.
It may be too much of a good thing. The wolves have eaten hundreds of cows and other livestock. Ranchers and local politicians had acquiesced to the reintroduction only if federal wildlife managers agreed to kill wolves that could not be otherwise persuaded to leave livestock alone. They are demanding that the government make good on the deal.
But humans' fascination with wolves runs long and deep: the myth of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus before they founded ancient Rome; the Big Bad Wolf of "Little Red Riding Hood"; the 1990 film "Dances With Wolves."
So when government gunners, living up to the agreement with the ranchers, have killed the majestic animals, they have triggered outpourings of outraged calls, letters and e-mails.
More Trouble Ahead
In the case of the Whitehawk pack, wildlife officials worked tirelessly to deter the wolves from eating livestock. The pack's fate was followed closely by wolf lovers. Its home was the spectacular Sawtooth Mountains - Idaho's Yosemite - and its alpha (or lead) female was a snow-white beauty named Alabaster.
By early last summer, the pack was in trouble. It had killed 16 sheep, a calf and a guard dog. Wolf opponents were calling for the pack's heads.
But Niemeyer had other plans. Electric fences were erected to protect the sheep overnight. Volunteers slept with the herd for weeks on end in the meadows below the jagged peaks of the White Cloud Mountains. Wolf managers rigged up a device called a rag box that, in response to a signal from a wolf's collar, blared noises such as gunshots, helicopters and yelling cowboys. The livestock losses stopped, and the wolves were spared.
This year, the pack moved to the opposite side of the mountain range. Ten rag boxes were set up in pastures to scare them off.
But on March 31, the wolves ate a pet sheep penned near a ranch house. Electronic monitors set up in the rancher's field identified two wolves as the culprits, and Niemeyer ordered them killed. Cracker shells, which explode with a loud bang and a flash, were fired from a helicopter to chase off the remaining wolves.
Nonetheless, two days later a calf was killed, and monitors fingered three more wolves from the pack. Niemeyer ordered their deaths as well.
One more effort was made to deter the wolves, but the next morning yet another calf was eaten.
"That's when I made the decision," Niemeyer said. "I felt we had come to the point that our nonlethal efforts were futile and this pack needed to be removed."
Armed with a semiautomatic rifle, Niemeyer flew in a helicopter several dozen feet above the foothills of the White Cloud Mountains in pursuit of the five remaining members of the pack, including Alabaster, who was nearing the end of a pregnancy.
Betrayed by transmitters in their collars, the animals were running for their lives.
Starting with Alabaster and her mate, Niemeyer shot the wolves one after another. "It was very surgical and humane," he said.
Niemeyer said he got 300 angry e-mails after he killed the Whitehawk pack. "In a perfect world, we would not kill wolves," he said. "But this is not a perfect world."
Niemeyer decided to be the one to pull the trigger because he anticipated intense criticism.
"I was the judge, jury and executioner," he said in a morose tone.
No Thrill in a Kill
Growing up in Iowa, Niemeyer had seen a film clip of an aerial gunner shooting wolves in Minnesota. To a boy who loved to trap and hunt, the gunner seemed to have a dream job. "I remember feeling, 'Wow! I'd like to do that someday,'" Niemeyer said.
Now he loathes it. "At times like that, I'd just like to disappear. It's not thrilling to kill a wolf, like I imagined as a kid."
Nonetheless, he and other federal officials working with the wolf program believe that killing individual wolves with a taste for livestock is essential to ensuring the long-term existence of wolves as a species in the Northern Rockies, where many people remain dedicated to their demise.
Killing wolves is likely to become much more common when the three states where they have been reintroduced - Idaho, Montana and Wyoming - take over their management. That will happen after the wolves are removed from the federal endangered species list, which could come as early as next year, said Ed Bangs, Niemeyer's boss as the wolf coordinator for the Northern Rockies.
The important thing, Bangs said, is the survival of the wolves as a species, not the survival of individual wolves.
That's not so easy to get the public to accept.
"Wolves are so much like us that we tend to strongly identify with them," Bangs said. Wolves are caring parents and good spouses. They hunt and eat together in packs and look after one another. They jealously guard their territory, repelling outsiders.
The environmentalist most closely involved with the reintroduction, Suzanne Laverty of Defenders of Wildlife, fears that when the states take over they will shoot first instead of trying nonlethal means to control the wolves. "It can't be acceptable to kill pack after pack," she said.
The Whitehawk pack had migrated into this region after the members of two other packs were killed or moved out of the area for attacking livestock. Just two months after the Whitehawk pack was shot, there were several reports of new wolves in the area.
Environmentalists argue that wolves should have special protection at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area because the federal government set it aside as a special place to enjoy wilderness. But ranchers have leased the meadows for grazing for decades.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled last month that the law establishing the Sawtooth National Recreation Area gave wolves and all other wildlife precedence over livestock. The local environmental groups that brought the case now have asked the judge to block long- standing grazing permits in the Sawtooth Valley.
The national environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, by contrast, has looked for ways for ranchers and wolves to live together. It supplies ranchers with huge white Great Pyrenees dogs to guard herds. It teaches ranchers simple techniques to avoid losses, such as burying animals that die of natural causes and gathering animals at night.
It even compensates ranchers for lost livestock. In the last 14 years, Defenders of Wildlife's wolf compensation program has given 198 ranchers more than $227,000 for more than 900 animals killed by wolves across the Northern Rockies.
Defenders of Wildlife is working with federal agencies this summer on a new tool to control wolves, called fladry. It consists of unlikely barriers of red fabric strips a few inches wide and about 18 inches long, hanging from cords like the flags that mark racers' progress in swimming pools. No one knows quite why, but wolves are afraid to pass through fladry.
Faye and Eron Coiner have agreed to host a fladry experiment at their remote ranch high in the mountains.
Laverty and Niemeyer visited the ranch last month. Within minutes of their arrival, Eron Coiner rode up on a horse and, without a word of greeting, announced: "Found a dead calf this morning - there wasn't much of it left.
"So, they're back," he said in a monotone, referring to the Jureano Mountain pack.
Overnight, the wolves had feasted on a 250-pound calf on a high mountain meadow covered with lupine, wild clover, geraniums, larkspur and other wildflowers.
The visitors were quietly pleased by the early kill, because they hoped it would ensure a solid test for the fladry.
The Coiners were not. They fear they could lose the $15,000 they earn for grazing another rancher's cows if their ranch gets a reputation for wolf kills.
"I thought the wolves ought to stay in Canada," said Coiner, 65, wearing jeans, rubber boots and a sweat-stained cowboy hat.
He is willing to give fladry a chance, but his hopes are not high. "They might stay away for a little while," he said, "but they'll get used to it just like anything else."
To Coiner, that day's kill was just the latest proof that wolves will prey on livestock as long as they live close together. "They eat meat, and a calf is a very easy target."
With the Jureano Mountain pack's record of killing livestock, Niemeyer could have ordered some or all of those wolves killed. The fladry study was a good excuse to keep the pack alive.
Over the next two nights, two wolves - the alpha male and a yearling female - were caught in traps. Both were given new collars, which will help officials monitor the success of the fladry study.
"It was a happy ending," Niemeyer said. "We could have killed some wolves there. But killing wolves is easy to do. We've got a great opportunity now to see if a nonlethal means of control works."