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As A Federal Agent, Carter Niemeyer Killed Wolves For A Living

Mary Roberson's painting Alpha, Alpha, Beta, Omega

 Mary Roberson's painting Alpha, Alpha, Beta, Omega

Editor's note: Carter Niemeyer has had a hand in killing more American wolves in the Lower 48 states than any wildlife manager in modern history. In the following interview with Contributing Writer Todd Wilkinson, the editor-in-chief of Wildlife Art Journal, Mr. Niemeyer discusses his book, Wolfer, and offers his thoughts on the current state of wolves and wolf management in the Rocky Mountains.


Carter Niemeyer has had a hand in killing more American wolves in the Lower 48 states than any wildlife manager in modern history.  As I wrote in a recent column that appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide newspaper: “I don’t mention this as an indictment—it’s a fact. A fact that gives him credibility, though the credibility comes from doing methodical detective work on the ground and deciding when wolves should—and shouldn’t—die.”

For decades, Niemeyer worked as a U.S. civil servant in the employ of Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a bureau within the U.S. Interior Department.  His primary job was killing predators that menaced domestic livestock.

Some environmentalists castigated him as a 'hit man" advancing the interests of cattle and sheep while ranchers on the other side of the barbed-wire fence said he was aligned with greens. After retiring, Niemeyer wrote a book about it, Wolfer, that has met with critical praise.  We highly recommend that you read it.

With about 1,600 wolves in the northern Rockies, about one wolf has died for every one that still lives.

 Since gray wolves were reintroduced to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and central Idaho in the mid 1990s—in the wake of humans exterminating original lobo populations — some 1,500 of the canid predators have been destroyed, largely in appeasement of the livestock industry. It means that today, with about 1,600 wolves in the northern Rockies, about one wolf has died for every one that still lives. 

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Nieymeyer is a giant, straight-shooter of a man—he stands 6’5”.  He has nothing to hide, little to apologize for, and he carries no hidden agendas.  His bias is that he grew up in the great outdoors, loves wildlife and savors wild places. Recently, I interviewed him about the ongoing wolf controversy in the West. 

TODD WILKINSON:  You've mentioned in interviews since Wolfer was published that you want to present an honest, unvarnished perspective on what has become known as the wolf saga.  Looking back, what were the tactical mistakes that wolf advocates made that led to the political backlash and could the backlash have been avoided?

CARTER NIEMEYER: The backlash that you refer to was precipitated first by the state of Wyoming by not providing a wolf conservation and management plan that was acceptable by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Secondly, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, according to a judge’s ruling, did not follow the letter of the law by delisting wolves according to requirements in the Endangered Species Act - separating the state of Wyoming from Idaho and Montana.

I think that wolf advocacy groups had no choice but to challenge delisting through litigation initially so that procedure was followed. Judges rulings indicate that wolf advocacy groups were correct in challenging delisting. Where things get murky is the question of having enough wolves to delist- the Final Environmental Impact Statement for gray wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho calling for a minimum of 30 breeding pairs totaling 300 wolves equitably distributed over the three wolf recovery areas in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  That’s 10 breeding pairs comprising 10 animals roughly in each pack. Those conditions were met in 2002; however, the state of Wyoming did not produce an acceptable wolf conservation and management plan by that time. Wolves kept breeding and numbers grew to over 1,600 wolves in over 100 packs by 2010.

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Wolves bring out deep emotions in their supports and detractors. USFWS photo by Tracy Brooks.

Some wolf advocacy groups were still not content that the northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery area had enough wolves in 2010 to guarantee viability and that wolf recovery was incomplete because wolves could occupy many more areas of the West.  While litigation by wolf advocacy groups continued, sportsmen, ranchers and rural resident in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming became frustrated, angry and fearful of the growing wolf population and felt that wolf advocates were trying to move the goal posts, so to speak, and the whole issue went political.

WILKINSON: In 2011, two U.S. senators, Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, and Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, attached an amendement to a federal budget bill legislatively stripping away federal protection for wolves.  They knew that because it was in a budget bill, it would skirt debate, pass and be signed into law by President Obama.  It was the first time that Congress has removed an endangered species from protection instead of going through the entire scientific process.  What do you make of that?

NIEMEYER:  Indeed, wolves were delisted by a rider attached to the national budget bill, which had never been done before. I know that it appears to have been wolf advocates who prolonged the delisting process but I think that the state of Wyoming and the US Fish and Wildlife Services contributed greatly to the outcome. I think it was time that the delisting process came to an end, but it was unfortunate that it happened the way it did. Just one more indication of the polarization of attitudes and values going on in this country today.

WILKINSON: You and I both know the scientists involved with wolf reintroduction. Part of the grand bargain, as they knew it, was that wolf harvest — hunting, trapping, intervention — was always central to the deal that cleared the way for wolves to be brought back after an absence of half a century.  In fact, you and guys like Mike Jimenez, another depredation specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, would aggressively act to stop a minor problem with livestock producers before it became major by killing preying wolves. In some cases, entire packs were removed when only a few calves had been killed but it looked like depredation could become chronic.   So I have two questions relating to this issue: The first is why does the livestock industry continue to say that wolf predation has caused a "major" impact — compared to weather, disease, etc. — when clearly it hasn’t and the government ensures that predator losses stay low by intervening quickly?

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George Catlin's "Buffalo Hunt Under The White Wolf Skin"

NIEMEYER: During the 25 years that I worked in the field on livestock damage caused by wolves, I conducted most of the livestock loss investigations in the Northern Rockies wolf recovery area and meticulously documented the losses. I also determined when livestock died from other causes. The procedures that I helped initiate in the early years set some of the standards that Wildlife Services and the individual states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming use today. I think what's going on is a clash of cultures. The truth as I see it, is that livestock losses attributed today to wolves and other predators are being exaggerated because of this clash.

I think what's going on is a clash of cultures. The truth as I see it is that livestock losses attributed today to wolves and other predators are being exaggerated because of this clash. — Carter Niemeyer

In many cases they go undocumented by wolf management agencies, but still end up in the statistics. While some livestock are killed by predators and never found, I still think that we need to stick to the numbers documented by federal and state agency field personnel and not based on anecdotal stories. When comparing actual documented livestock losses in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to the National Agricultural Statistical Reporting Service figures, the numbers don't jive (documented losses are much lower than the NASS self-reporting method). Compensation for livestock killed by wolves was provided by Defenders of Wildlife based upon government field investigation forms but now in Idaho, for example, state compensation funds (federal tax dollars) are provided for missing livestock which is mainly attributed to wolves with no documentation required. We need some method to measure predator loss based on documentation. Losses of livestock to wolves is comparatively low compared to other causes of death but nonetheless wolves are routinely being killed by government agents or livestock producers in response to wolf predation. Over 1500 wolves have been killed in the northern Rocky mountains, mostly in response to livestock predation.  

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Are wolves killing machines that are wiping out elk herds, or maintaining a balance? NPT file photo.

WILKINSON:  My second question is what do you make of all these assertions of "elk armageddon" and certain individuals encouraging people to poach wolves and spread poison and become lawless anti-wolf vigilantes?

NIEMEYER: I have never bought into the belief that wolves are wiping out the deer, elk and moose in the Northern Rockies. Wolves prey on all of these ungulate species and in areas of high wolf density some localized elk herds are showing some declines. Overall, elk are doing great in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and are at or above management objectives according to fish and game reports based on big game surveys and trend studies.

I never bought into the belief that wolves are wiping out the deer, elk and moose in the Northern Rockies.  Overall, elk are doing great in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and are at or above management objectives.  —Niemeyer

 I do believe that the story has been repeated so many times by so many people that hunters have become convinced that elk are vanishing in the jaws of wolves. What is happening is that elk have learned to react to wolves by changing their grazing and travel habits and may be getting tougher to locate by some hunters. I know several veteran hunters who kill an elk every year because they hunt hard, walk far and get back into country where the elk are hiding. Hunters depend too much on mechanized hunting, like ATVs, to hunt big game and are partly to blame for big game being hard to find. It is unfortunate that the anti-wolf crowd is playing on the fears of people that wolves are killing all of the elk, spreading diseases and parasites and stalking kids at bus stops. Poachers are criminals. Period.

WILKINSON: I have spoken with several long time wildlife managers.  They say the Wyoming wolf management plan essentially pins the wolf population into a relatively small box of acceptability — just 20 percent of the state — and then allows citizens to purge wolves wherever else the animals wander whether they are causing discernible serious impacts or not.   For a charismatic imperiled animal that the public has spent millions of dollars recovering, this post-delisting management endorsed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, your former employer, is unprecedented and has been panned by scientists and conservationists.  What do you make of it?


Editor's note:  Wolves incite reactions in people who do not always agree. We welcome you to share your observations, below.  When it comes to commentary, however, we are old-fashioned. We require real people using real names providing thoughts that add to a civil, respectful exchange. We are willing to listen to people who have a legitimate reason for not using their real names but generally that is a rare exceptional case.  While some sites on the internet court and encourage a free-for-all atmosphere in which personal insults and foul language are allowed, we adhere to the same protocol as exists for letters to the editor in the local newspaper.  If you insist on saying something that would leave you embarassed to be associated with your own words, find somewhere else to have it published.

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Excellent article with some interesting perspective on a topic that arouses plenty of emotion. Click on the link near the end of the story to read the rest of the interview.

Actually, for me it was the reduced/absence of polarizing dialogue and the accompanying emotions that gives credence to the article.  I grew up with mentors similar to Niemeyer and can relate very well to someone more connected to the issue than many "groups" that ultimately (temptation to) use this and other issues as a fundraiser that is very much, polarizing and is an industry in itself.  Cooler heads such as Niemeyer who is perhaps closest to the issue and if you can find one in the environmental community could do some real good at problem solving.  

I applaud the standards for comments stated at the end of the article. 

If you insist on saying something that would leave you embarassed
to be associated with your own words, find somewhere else to have it

But given the kind of language and actions I hear all too frequently in stores and other public places, I'm afraid there are far too many people out there who would not be at all embarrassed by any of their foul language.

Agree with Lee on the Local Foul language of the Uneducated human Masses: however, the Global Economic Reality Today Is thatAs a Debtor nation, we cannot continue wasting precious borrowed dollars on killing predators as a means of keeping rancher politicians satisfied.Federal agencies just like the military complex waste billions collectively onpointless projects.  A portion of the Trillions of dollars in cuts need to be taken out ofthese Interior and Agricultural agencies especially the Federal Wildlife Control Killers which destroy the remaining fragments of wild Nature and not from programs assisting the basic needs of the working poor.Time to Reread:  Ernest Thompson Seton and the Intelligent Wolf, LOBO Lobo the wolf was a legend in the valley of the Currumpaw in northern New Mexico in the 1890s. He was the scourge of cattle ranchers preying on their cattle with his pack of five wolves. The ranchers placed a bounty of one thousand dollars for anyone that would kill or capture Lobo. Seton an experienced wolf killer from Canada thought it would be easy money. He came to the valley and the outcome of the conflict changed the man and the course of history The story is based on true events that occurred in 1893 in northern New Mexico.

Anon, I think it was the "Uneducated human masses" line that caught my attention.  A real educated person, perhaps a Harvard Alumnus would never let that slip out although it is part of the grounding that many get from frequenting those halls.  Theory and emotion alone aren't very productive in the real world.  They certainly have taken over the conversation but it appears the grip is loosening.  The grounding that students get growing up in the realities of ranch life while possessing the gifts and opportunities to attain a higher education are valued indeed and can add a great deal in solving problems across the board in this world that needs problem solving and not just hysterical but heartfelt dialogue.   Only problem?  There are becoming fewer and fewer young people coming from that kind of grounding.  The country was founded by such individuals and more are needed.  Niemeyer, obviously has a solid grip on reality where some real progress could be had.  Hmmm, maybe he should go to Washington if he can remain balanced and not be eventually co-opted as so many with real knowledge are swayed to partisan temptations and use his resume to hawk an agenda.  Men with character are targets it seems.  

Dear Keeper, Good thoughts.  There is a problem with the yeoman farmer/agrarian premise:  I grew up in a small upper Midwestern farm town and I've been writing about the emptying out of farm/ranch country and the replacement of mom and pop operations with larger mega farms for a long time.  One thing that cannot be pinned on environmentalists or predators is the conscious decision farm and ranch kids are making not to come back to the family operation.  It's not only an economic one caused by market conditions related to policies created by both political parties, but cultural preferences on the part of the offspring. It causes hurt and where there's hurt there is often a need to assign blame. Blame enviros, blame the government, blame people like Carter Niemeyer.  The flight from rural areas, more than anything else, is dramatically transforming small communities that, in hindsight and colored by nostalgia, seem more idyllic than they ever actually were. Whether there are wolves on the outskirts of town, or not, is not going to change the direction that rural America is headed. If you look at the actual statistics relating to wolf impacts, they are miniscule compared to the costs ranchers face for:  livestock dying from disease and weather, getting lost, finding affordable laborers;  dealing with indebtedness do to rising costs of operations;  and the agony of having kids decide they want to do something else with their lives.  The West, it seems, is very good at quarreling with itself about fairly insignficant things, like wolves, rather than talking about the real sources of its angst. 

Recently I posed to my Ivy League graduate son how evil, despicable, uncaring, want to starve children and kill old people inclinations that conservatives hold dear.  He responded in kind with the buzz words attributed to Liberals then his Environmental Studies Doctoral candidate girlfriend responded with the extreme buzz words thrown at her sector of the conversation. I for one found relief in seeing the absurdities of each statement.  We found some common ground that favored conversation without the personal insults.   Can't really deny the culture change that has occurred since beginning the seemingly groovy/horrendous days of the '60s.  I'm going far afield here I suppose spurred by your observations of changes on the farm.  It's not just the farms but throughout all corners of the culture.  I do know and recognize the difference between actions based on real grounding, respect for individuals and their different learning curves  and those that step out of academia or have grown up in urban environments that feel the need to blame someone for everything that isn't PC and the politicians that want their votes (and their money).  Thanks for responding Todd and for your article.  I can see we may converse again and that would be fine.  I need to go, though.  Adios

In reference to usage of the expression, "the Uneducated human Masses" we were
not promoting the dark side of Harvard or Princeton Administrators or other higher
education greedy, over-paid Administrators with their multi-billion dollar University
endowments while still justifying "working poor wages" to selected staff.  Nor would
any loyal Harvard Alumni acknowledge the book, "Harvard and the Unabomber" by Alston
Chase.  What was meant was only a relatively small percentage of young minds
benefit from "Higher Education" since most are not mentored, but ignored, and then
graduate or leave college with a Yoke of Debt ! However,
When any predator killer, like Carter Niemeyer, professes to love The Western American
landscape including its wild fragmented places not yet badly trashed by herds of cattle &
sheep, all hoofed locusts, which have polluted clear streams of public lands with manure
and removed/trashed native riparian vegetation, we are once again reminded of Ed
Abbey's Wisdom:
“The rancher strings barbed wire across the range, drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds everywhere, drives off the elk and antelope and bighorn sheep, poisons coyotes and prairie dogs, shoots eagles and bears and cougars on sight, supplants the native bluestem and grama grass with tumbleweed, cow shit, cheat grass, snakeweed, anthills, poverty weed, mud and dust and flies–and then leans back and smiles broadly at the Tee Vee (TV)cameras and tells us how much he loves the West.” –Edward Abbey

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