Wolfer: From Predator Control Agent to Predator Conservationist

Wildlife consultant Camilla Fox interviews Carter Niemeyer, a former federal predator control agent and author of the award-winning Wolfer: A Memoir.

Carter Niemeyer is a wildlife biologist who started his career as a government trapper, and ended it working on wolf recovery in the northern Rockies. His much-lauded book, Wolfer: A Memoir, chronicles his years capturing, killing, tracking, and relocating wolves for the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal Damage Control (later “Wildlife Services”) program, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and examines the increasing societal polarity around wolf recovery.

In your book, Wolfer, you talk about a significant career shift from having started doing predator control for the federal government to now working on wolf recovery in the northern Rockies in your “retirement.” How and when did that shift take place?
Working constantly in the arena of human/predator/ livestock conflict resolution meant that I dealt with a lot of unpleasant situations—and in the middle of all this I learned quickly that wolves were often not responsible for all the dead livestock in a given area. Ranchers, politicians, and some of my own leadership in Wildlife Services, however, didn't want to hear it. I decided that to cover myself—and because I wanted to be accurate even when everyone else just wanted to blame wolves—I wanted to make sure my livestock depredation investigations were the best they could be and solidly justified wolf control, if that's what it came to. I never found solace in killing predators for no good reason. More and more I sensed what I was doing was for cultural and political reasons and decided that I would work toward better public communications through education, mentoring, and training of others who might experience the same problems I did.

What is your view of the current controversy over wolf conservation in the United States? What do you believe are some of the root causes of this controversy that pits livestock producers and game hunters against wolf conservationists?
This is clearly a culture clash where traditional Western practices such as livestock grazing and recreational hunting are feared to be under attack by federal wolf reintroduction into the NRM [Northern Rocky Mountain] region by big government and environmentalists. Writer Tim Egan put it bluntly not too long ago when he said the fear in rural America (he was referring to Oregon at the time) is that there will someday be more cappuccinos than cattle.

From your experience, what do you think are the greatest misconceptions people have about wolves?
I think it's fear. Most people, in their everyday lives, will never encounter a wolf—and have never seen one. But for some deep-seated, psychological reason they buy in to the fear-factor about wolves. Only two humans have been attacked and killed by wolves in the last 100 years or more and both of those people were not in the lower 48 states but in Canada and Alaska where over 65,000 wolves lived long before wolf reintroduction. It's a worn-out bit of propaganda that wolves brought down from Canada are bigger and meaner than the ones that were here, and that they carry unusual, scary parasites. Compared to other causes of death to pets and livestock—and certainly humans—wolves should rate at the bottom of the list of things to worry about. Deer and elk are natural prey of wolves, but human hunters have decided they don't like the competition. I'm a hunter myself, but I don't get it. I don't worry about wolves a bit. It's a chance to see who's the better hunter that day.

In Wolfer, you discuss some of the problems with the federal government's predator control program that operates under USDA’s Wildlife Services—for whom you once worked. Please tell us about some of those concerns.
My biggest single concern with Wildlife Services is that their field personnel need to document livestock losses by predators in a professional, transparent, and impartial manner. Too often I see Wildlife Services doing a shabby job of investigating, or outright misdiagnosing the real cause of death. These guys are under tremendous pressure from all levels to rubber-stamp livestock deaths as predator kills. Wildlife Services needs to be more concerned about its public image.

What do you think of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission's recent announcement that it plans to expand commercial and recreational wolf trapping statewide?
The biggest problem I see with legal wolf trapping is that much larger, stronger traps and snares can be legally used to capture wolves but at the same time put non-target species like elk, deer, livestock, pets, and other large predators at risk of being accidentally caught and injured.

Some say that the divisiveness between wolf haters and wolf appreciators has never been so great. Given that people's attitudes and beliefs are so deeply ingrained, do you believe it's possible that we can build acceptance for large carnivore recovery in the West?
I think good management decisions that balance public needs will need time to work in order to see if they can help people get to middle ground. When people on all sides are irrational I don't think anything works. We have to get to the point, sooner or later, where people can talk sensibly and find common ground. We don't have a wolf problem, we have a problem of culture collision where old traditions and practices (ranching and hunting) are being questioned by a highly urbanized public who look at the use of our public lands with different sensibilities. You can't say one is right and one is wrong, but people have to grapple with the fact that things are changing. You know what they say: change or die.

In your work, you've seen some of the tactical mistakes that wolf advocates made in their efforts to recover wolf populations in the lower 48. If you had some advice to those working for wolf recovery now, what would it be and how can mistakes from the past be avoided?
I was part of the federal review team during formulation of the Environmental Impact Statement to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone and Central Idaho. I think the public needs to review that document today to see what the goals and objectives were, just as a refresher. It's been a long time, and I think people have taken their eye off the ball for too long. The USFWS never intended to try and recover wolves throughout the entire West, but establish a viable wolf population in the areas delineated. I think that advocates had every right to legally challenge the procedural shortcomings of the rule during the delisting process, but the risk was that they would jettison everything into a philosophical debate over how many wolves were enough—and that's exactly what happened. I think the Service made some major mistakes, but the volatility of the wolf issue pretty much tells me that the Service will never again try it anywhere else.