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.
How many wolves have you actually handled?
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.
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?
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?
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.
If I worked for the Fish & Game Department, I’m not sure I’d want this issue dumped on my plate.
It’s a difficult financial position to be in, too, since wolves eat elk, and hunters buy hunting licenses to hunt elk.
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.
Can we manage wolves like we do bears and cougars?
How will hunters do, if and when a hunting season is permitted?
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?
What do you suppose is the biggest misconception that folks have about the wolf?
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?
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’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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
And what about these killing sprees like Bonnie and Clyde that wolves tend to go on?
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?
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?
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?
How far can they travel?
How do wolves kill an animal?
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?
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.