Carter Niemeyer Interview

Carter Niemeyer helped capture the wolves that were brought to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the 1990’s. He had began his career as a government trapper in Montana in the mid 1980’s. In 2000 he became the Idaho wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 2006. This interview was conducted in the spring of 2009.

Carter NiemeyerHow many wolves have you actually handled?
I’ve probably handled nearly 300 wolves through helicopter capture and foothold trapping, so I’ve spent an extensive amount of my career in the field handling live wolves.

There are those who say we brought the wrong wolves into Idaho in 1995 and 1996, that they’re bigger wolves than the ones that were here.
I have to support the science again, and specialists in morphology and genetics on wolves indicate that the wolf that was brought down from Canada is the same wolf that lived here previously. And I did some research into books on early wolves that were captured in the Northern Rockies, even as far south as Colorado during the days that wolves were being hunted down in the 1930s; and the body weights were very much the same.

So I feel that this wolf that was brought from Canada is the same species and genetics as the wolves that lived here once upon a time. I think people have to remember that the northern Rockies -- we call it the northern Rockies in Idaho and Montana, but actually we’re a southern extension of the northern Rockies out of Canada -- and all of those wolves in Canada have the potential and the ability to disperse. I believe what happened over the last 50-60 years is that individual wolves have come from Canada following the Rocky Mountain chain and ended up periodically in places like Montana and Idaho.

What is it about the wolf that causes people so much grief?
Well, principally, the grief is about people more than wolves, because people have so many different values and wolves mean so many different things to different people. And, of course, you go back to the myths and the fairytales. Early European settlers dealt with wolves trying to kill their livestock, when livestock was kind of displacing the wild ungulates. And so it’s always been a curse to the livestock industry and a competitor with them.

And then as we move forward, I think people have grown away from the land and become more urbanized, and most people don’t even understand what a wild wolf is all about. And so there’s just a lot of fear and misconception on the one hand, and on the other hand, they resemble someone’s pet dog; and so you elevate them to a status where they’re noble, majestic and man’s best friend, and the real answer is that it’s somewhere in the middle of all this.

There’s just a lot of fear and misconception on the one hand, and on the other hand, they resemble someone’s pet dog; and so you elevate them to a status where they’re noble, majestic and man’s best friend, and the real answer is that it’s somewhere in the middle of all this.

What do you say to people who want absolutely nothing to do with wolves?
Well, anyone who’s opposed to wolves in the northern Rockies, it’s a little late now. The wolf is here; I don’t see the wolf going away for a long, long time to come. I think people are going to have to adjust and recognize that this is another predator in our environment that we’re going to live with.

It’s reestablishing a position that it once had. And it has many benefits. I mean you can’t just look at wolves always in a negative, but they’re a culling factor. Predators like the wolf are what made elk and deer herds and ungulate populations healthy over the years, too. They cull them; they keep them sharp and healthy.

And, of course, smaller predators like coyotes are going to have to give them wide space, because they will kill coyotes and displace them. And I think ungulate herds behaviorally have had to change. They’ve had to get sharper now, because the predator that used to hunt them is back. And so, it absolutely is creating a new niche and other animals have to give it wide birth.

Hunters seem to have a problem with wolves taking what they, hunters, think is rightfully theirs.
Hunters look at the wolf from many angles and perspectives, too, and I have to emphasize that I’m a hunter. Certainly wolves compete, but I don’t think they’re any excuse for not being a successful hunter. There’s tremendous numbers of game animals available to sportsman and with a little effort and sleuth, you still have great potential to collect a wild animal from hunting. I don’t know what the excuse was before wolves, but it has become the main excuse now for unsuccessful hunters. I mean, there are just so many other issues involved in why hunters are not successful, but the wolf is a lame excuse.

Carter Niemeyer using radio control locator

If I worked for the Fish & Game Department, I’m not sure I’d want this issue dumped on my plate.
Being a state wolf manager has got to be very complicated, because you’re subject to a lot of politics. And I can certainly understand, from the legislature to the governor to the Fish and Game Commission and the sportsman groups, livestock industry people, guides and outfitters --there’s just a tremendous number of interest groups who are all expecting the Fish and Game agency to take the correct step in managing wolves, and that varies tremendously.

It’s a difficult financial position to be in, too, since wolves eat elk, and hunters buy hunting licenses to hunt elk.
Well, I can understand being the Fish and Game Department, that depends on revenue from licenses. You’re put between a rock and a hard spot when you’re trying to look out for a new animal under your responsibility, and still be responsible to maintain adequate ungulate herds so that sportsman have something to hunt.

It’s a little late now, but I wish that when the states assume management of wolves that there could have been some kind of a moratorium where the states took the responsibility and didn’t jump right into a wolf harvest, or a wolf culling, or whatever you want to call it. It would’ve been nice, I think, to establish some credibility with wolf advocates and conservationists, environmentalists and people who appreciate wolves for other values. And just sort of get a handle on things and get a feel for managing the wolf. Because there’s this perception that suddenly we’re going from a listed animal to a hunted animal and I think a lot of the public is having a struggle with coming along with that.

The other thing I wish could happen, too, is there’d be more dialogue between the broad term wolf advocates and the Fish and Game Department and talk about these issues more openly, because the conservation groups have been a close ally in getting wolf recovery moving forward and actually being partners, and now there seems to be this falling out and a relationship that’s deteriorating.

There are just so many other issues involved in why hunters are not successful, but the wolf is a lame excuse.

That’s an interesting point, because the conservation groups have almost always been in the same camp as Fish and Game.
They have all along; there’s been a partnership, and now there just seems to be this rush to judgment that the wolf brings all these negative connotations; and I think the public wants some confirmation that there’s some positive reasons to have wolves, too.

Can we manage wolves like we do bears and cougars?
I can understand the concept of just managing their numbers, but wolves run in packs, where bears and lions are solitary animals. So there’s a contradiction there to some degree. And another concern I know that a lot of people look at, too, is that you go from a protected listed species, 1,600 wolves, to proposals of killing several hundred just in a matter of the following hunting season. And, again, that seems to contradict “we’re going to manage like bear and lions,” because you don’t set harvest quotas that high for bear and lion populations. You have to look at numbers, because that’s your database that you’re working with, and verbal assurances are one thing, but those assurances can change due to politics.

How will hunters do, if and when a hunting season is permitted?
I think most wolves that get shot initially are going to be killed opportunistically. I don’t think a lot of hunters are going to go out and say, ‘I'm going to hunt a wolf’ and get one. They’re very elusive. Using radio telemetry as a biologist, it’s hard to locate wolves where you can actually see them. So it’s not going to be easy to go out and kill wolves, but if you have it running concurrently with ungulate seasons, hunters are going to opportunistically run into a wolf, and if they have a tag, they’re going to kill it.

Niemeyer holding radio collar

As a biologist, as part of the wolf recovery effort, it was always discussed, and the ultimate goal was to delist wolves and have a hunting season. That was just one of the ultimate outcomes.

Are the efforts to return the wolf to the west part of the so-called War on the West?
Well, the wolf once lived here, and we exterminated them. And I see, my personal opinion, and I’m a trained biologist too, I support reintroduction if that is what society wanted. I mean, that was the goal. It wasn’t a couple of biologists who dreamed this whole concept up. But the reintroduction was the way to get wolf numbers up quickly and to move recovery forward.

What do you suppose is the biggest misconception that folks have about the wolf?
I think there are a tremendous number of misconceptions by people on all sides of the issue. A wolf is a large canine predator that eats elk and deer and red meat. And beyond being a wild animal, doing its thing that it’s created to do, adding all these human qualities to the wolf is to me, the biggest misconception.

I mean, you can look at one and call it beautiful, but a wolf is a wolf, and it’s unfortunate that they have to be put on a pedestal or demonized, and this is all human-imposed perceptions of the wolf.

The wolf now is sort of this cultural shock that been imposed upon them, but they’re probably the least dangerous of all of the largest predators.

Are you optimistic that we can ever learn to live with the wolf?
I think until there’s dialogue, the issue of wolves is going to fester, and I think lately it seems like people are becoming more polarized than less. And the fact is, we’re going to have to learn to live with them. And I don’t know if coexistence is the best word to use, but the wolf is here and it’s going to be here for a long, long time to come. It’s been tested in court, the legalities have been challenged and so people are going to have to learn to live with the wolf.

Bears and mountain lions and grizzly bears were never totally extirpated or removed from the picture, and so people have evolved and grown up with their presence. But the wolf now is sort of this cultural shock that been imposed upon them, but they’re probably the least dangerous of all of the largest predators.

In modern times, there’s just been almost no record of any human attack by wolves. Mountain lions, black bears, and grizzly bears are attacking people annually, and some are being just mauled and others killed. But that’s not happening with the wolf right now. But the wolf absolutely has the capability of injuring and killing someone.

So, what’s your personal opinion about wolves?
I have no bone to pick with the wolf whatsoever. I see more positives in the wolf than negatives. I’m a hunter, but I’m not intimidated by the wolf as something that’s going to kill me or something that’s going to defeat me from being a successful hunter. I totally give the wolf space in my world, and I really appreciate them and enjoy them and I love watching them. So I don’t really have any real negative feelings toward wolves, but I have a lot of positive feelings.

I’ve been a predator specialist all my life, and I’ve worked with eagles, bears, lions, wolves. I enjoy all of them. I enjoy coyotes. I’ve hunted coyotes, but I’ve spent many more hours just watching them and enjoying them.

Weren’t you responsible for taking out the Whitehawk wolf pack?
Yeah, going back to 2002, it was my decision to eliminate a wolf pack in the east fork of the Salmon River. They were called the WhiteHawk pack. We spent over five years using a variety of non lethal techniques to discourage them from killing livestock, and all of those techniques worked for a short time, but ultimately, the wolves became more persistent and habituated to some of these ranches in the east fork.

We used all of the non-lethal techniques in our toolbox to try to discourage the wolves in the east fork from killing livestock. And it became clear at the end that we’d run out of tools. We’d run out of methods, and they persisted in killing livestock, and I can’t say I felt comfortable with the decision because I took a tremendous beating from the public for allowing this pack to be eliminated. But we ultimately killed all 10 wolves because we had no other choice left, in my opinion. And based upon my responsibilities as a wolf manager, I had to make a decision, and I did.

And how does one go about taking out a pack of wolves?
Eliminating wolves, especially in the northern Rockies, can be very easy. You put radio collars on the pack, you put up a spotter plane and you bring in a helicopter, and you can surgically remove a pack of wolves very quickly. More so in the winter than in the summer, but we have the ability to kill them very effectively.

I see them very vulnerable, especially in winter conditions with aircraft telemetry. I think you could set their numbers back very quickly. And that’s in contrast to the Midwest where the brush and the habitat is so much denser and thicker, where aircraft may not be effective back there; but it’s certainly effective out west.

I have to support the science again, and specialists in morphology and genetics on wolves indicate that the wolf that was brought down from Canada is the same wolf that lived here previously.

Speaking of the Midwest, what lessons do Idahoans have to learn from Minnesota?
Well, the lesson I think is easily learned from the Midwest is the number of years it’s taken to try to get wolves delisted. They were probably 20 years ahead of us, and they’re still trying to get their wolves delisted at the same time we are. And so this takes a lot of time, and a lot of discussion and a lot of anguish between human beings trying to come to the proper management scheme that everybody can live with.

One of the problems I see very clearly is that I wish that politics could step back from the wolf picture. One of the problems that persists is that western politicians cannot stay out of the wolf question and the wolf issue. And as long as these cheap-shot bills are introduced into legislatures, trying to take wolves totally under state management and tell the government to go away and to just make these severe polarized decisions about how to manage wolves, that’s what prolongs the agony and keeps this whole thing in court.

We talk about biological carrying capacity, but with the wolf we’re also introducing the term social carrying capacity. How much will the public support the wolf, and how much will the wolf be tolerated? And so, each time people agitate and stir up the issue and lead the public to believe that politicians are going to determine the outcome, this is exactly what shouldn’t be happening right now.

Explain the alpha male and the pack structure of wolves.
Wolves work out of a pack structure. There’s a designated alpha female and an alpha male, and that’s normally the breeding pair. And they have from four to 11 pups, probably somewhere in the middle, more like six pup average. And the adults do the hunting. The pups normally watch and learn. Adult wolves normally do the hunting in the pack.

The pups are generally useless for probably most of the first year. So, one of the misnomers is that the wolves are out teaching their pups to kill. Well, the pups are learning to kill during that first year of life. A pack gradually grows; they usually have a litter of pups every year. Some of those pups, when they reach two to three years old, they tend to disperse. Some stay with the pack and help take care of the new siblings that they have each year. But these packs normally can build up to a dozen animals. Again, the numbers vary. They’ve had a pack in Yellowstone that’s gotten up to 35 animals, I believe at one time.

And so the pack dynamics are that the alpha pair probably would stay together for life unless one or the other is killed. They take care of several generations of pups throughout their life. Some of the siblings stay and remain with the pack while others disperse, often hundreds of miles.

And they just keep pumping wolves into the environment, and gradually an adult male and an adult female usually 2,3, or 4 years of age find each other, and if they can find an empty territory somewhere where other wolves aren’t living, they’ll mate and form a pair bond, and then they’ll have pups. And they’ll hunt and defend that territory and that’s gradually how wolf recovery occurred in the northern Rockies. We brought 66 wolves in here in 1995 and 1996 and they’ve expanded to 1,600 animals. Probably that’s a minimum estimate, and you’re seeing some dispersal into Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado, and states around us now.

What’s the biggest limitation on wolves?
The biggest limitation on wolves are other wolves, first of all. They set up territories as long as there’s space, and when there’s no space left, then those that want to establish a new pack have to find an available territory. And so they may either fight for that territory, or enter it and be killed.

And then of course, one of the biggest factors of all is ungulate food base, like having enough deer and elk to eat, to feed, and sustain the pack. It’s often misunderstood, but biologically, prey control predators; predators don’t control prey. And so these predator populations are very dependent on their prey base, and if that prey based declines or disappears, those predators are going to follow suit also.

How can one expect a wolf not to eat a sheep?
Well, sheep have to be tended very closely. They need close shepherding and they need guard dogs, and if they’re not protected closely, predators will get into the sheep, I guarantee you.

It’s a double whammy because you’ve got the conflict with wolves eating elk and deer that hunters like to hunt, and/or getting into domestic livestock and then getting crossways with the ranching industry; and so those are two of the biggest, hottest issues that keep this thing so contentious. Seasonally they eat rodents, but there’s just so much energy output for what little reward they get that they have to kill something bigger and more sustaining.

This notion that wolves always kill the weakest, that’s not exactly true, is it?
Well, wolves, like all predators, are opportunistic. Commonly they do kill the sick and the weak and the infirm because they’re the easiest ones to catch. But there’s times of the year where it becomes advantageous, especially in deep snow conditions, and in the winter, and during stressful periods of cold weather, deep snow, or even a bull elk who spent all his energy breeding and mating all fall. Healthy animals do become vulnerable.

And what about these killing sprees like Bonnie and Clyde that wolves tend to go on?
I think it’s very selfish and self centered of someone to accuse a wolf of being inhumane in wounding its prey, because a human animal does the same thing in many respects. Hunters don’t always make clean shots, whether they’re shooting a bullet or an arrow. And so to point fingers and say one species is more cruel than the other, I think, is kind of misplaced judgment really.

It’s my experience that wolves do utilize their kills. In my training, looking at dead livestock, people will say, why did they kill the calf and just leave it? It’s because the humans discovered the dead calf and we disturbed the calf, and we had to skin it out and determine that a predator killed it. But if you left that carcass lay, and let time progress, the wolves very commonly came back and ate the entire carcass the next night.

How does a radio collar work?
Each collar has its own frequency and own identity so we’re capable of tracking multiple animals using these collars. There’s a battery pack inside that gives them a longevity of three to five years. Most wolves probably have a neck size of 18 inches, roughly; that's what we put on a female. Some of the collars may be are as large as a 22-inch diameter on a male.

These collars give off a signal; if you’re in an aircraft, I know you can pick them up for 50 or 60 miles. There’s actually a line of sight kind of function in these. On the ground, if we’re tracking them, we use the handheld antenna. But if we’re tracking a wolf on the ground with a handheld antenna, and it’s on the backside of a hill, or there’s some other obstruction or landmark that cuts off that signal, it could be a half a mile away, and you may not hear it.

Often, pup wolves will lay around on a summer day, and they’ll just chew on these collars on the adults and actually chew through them and they fall off.

What are the sizes of the wolves in the West?
Wolves, when they grow to their adult size within a year or two, probably average around 100 pounds. I’ve handled female wolves that were as small as 65 pounds, probably in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 pounds. Then you get into the males. They’ll range from 100 to 135 pounds.

The largest male wolf that I ever handled was in Yellowstone and it weighed 141 pounds and probably a lot of that weight was from eating. And often these animals that weigh 135 to 140, if they went a day or two without food and their system cleaned out, they were probably closer to 115 to 120 pounds. But anytime you hear someone talking about wolves in excess of 135, 140 pounds, there could be a tendency to be exaggerating, although I suppose there are exceptions.

And what about their age?
We know from experience with some of the wolves reintroduced from Canada, that we had longevity in neighborhood of 12 to 14 years of age, so they can live to be quite old. I think in nature or in the wild, their lifespan is much shorter. We commonly handled wolves 4 to 5 to 6 years old. I predict that the majority of wolves harvested by hunters are going to be young animals. Mostly pups of the year, 1- or 2-year-olds.

How far can they travel?
A wolf can probably trot at a sustained speed of three, four, five miles an hour. So in a matter of hours they can travel 15 to 20 miles. And then, based on our radio telemetry and collar recoveries, we know we’ve had wolves that have gone 300, 400, 500 miles. And a wolf recently has been tracked from north of Yellowstone Park to Colorado, using a satellite radio collar which is different from some of the ones we’re using. So they have tremendous dispersal abilities.

How do wolves kill an animal?
Wolves can kill as a pack, or they can kill as an individual. An individual 100 pound wolf is very capable of killing an elk, a deer, or a sheep or a calf. I’ve noticed there’s a couple different styles of killing. I’ve dealt mostly with livestock depredation issues over the years, and with wolves killing cattle, most of the time – I would say 99 percent of the time – they will kill calves and kill yearlings more so than killing an adult cow or a bull.

When killing cattle, wolves attack the loose skin under the front legs, the loose skin in front of the hind legs, and then they bite the rear of the legs, and it’s often referred to as hamstringing, where they literally break the leg muscles down until the animal collapses, and then they can kill it and eat it.

Hunting similarities are the same with deer and elk, except I’ve noticed that they do more frontal attacks, too. They run the elk down, and then they grab them by the face or by the neck or throat also, as well as biting them behind the front legs and in front of the hind legs. So there’s a little bit different attack scheme for livestock versus wild ungulates.

But generally wolves run down deer and elk by grabbing their legs, slowing them down, and then, if there’s a pack of them, some of the other wolves will grab them by the face, neck, throat, nose and hold onto them, and as a group they bring the animal down. I’ve chased wolves in a helicopter, so I’m guessing they can run close to 35- 40 miles an hour.

What happens when wolves meet other predators?
There’s been a fair amount of documentation where wolves and lions and bears have interacted, and some biologists have actually watched the interaction. We know that wolves have killed mountain lions, both adult and young. And we also know that mountain lions have killed some wolves.

And with bears, I’ve heard of some young bears, more like cubs, that have been killed. And in Yellowstone, I know that there’s lot of video documentation where grizzly bears and wolves dispute a kill, but sometimes a bear just lays on the kill, and dominates it, refuses to give it up, and the wolves will generally back off. With more submissive bears, I’ve seen where wolves run them off and actually take their kill away from them.