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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
To read the rest of the interview, head to Wildlife Art Journal.
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