Capping off a long, discouraging week, Carter Niemeyer set out around dawn on Saturday, April 6, resigned to killing the most popular pack of wolves in Idaho.

Armed with a semiautomatic 12-gauge shotgun, wearing a flight suit, helmet and safety glasses, he and another federal wolf controller, Rick Williamson, boarded aircraft in Challis, a small town in the beautiful mountain country near the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho's equivalent of a major national park.

Niemeyer took off in a helicopter whose doors had been removed to clear his field of fire. With so much air roaring through, he hooked himself to a harness to avoid being swept out. The pilot flew him low over the East Fork of the Salmon River, where ranchers own the bottomland for cattle pasture and the hillsides are national forest leased for grazing.

With Williamson in a spotter plane at higher altitude, they flew in an attack formation, scouting the folds of the terrain. Locating their targets was not the difficult part of the job. In the way of modern wolf management, 20 to 30 percent of the adult wolves in the wilds of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have been fitted with radio collars. Every pack wears at least a couple of collars now.

Using radio telemetry mounted on the plane's wings, Niemeyer and Williamson zeroed in on the Whitehawk Pack. The pack had already been reduced to five wolves but still was led by the alpha male and the stunningly white alpha female that hundreds of wolf lovers around the world knew by the name they'd given her, Alabaster.

As the helicopter swooped down, the pack scattered and Niemeyer began to fire. Number four buckshot spreads out and has tremendous stopping power, effective for hitting animals on the run. Even so, it took several hours, with Niemeyer shooting one wolf after another as they bolted from this piece of cover to that. It is a skill, keeping your balance in the doorway of the helicopter, leaning in the harness and aiming, accepting the recoil, the gunsmoke and thunder against your face, shooting only when you manage to get within close range, 30 or 40 yards, making sure whenever you hit a wolf, enough pellets tear into the flesh and bone that death is instantaneous.

"Fairness, sporting - the words don't enter into it," Niemeyer says, recalling how the job went that day.

At last the men had the Whitehawk Pack reduced to five carcasses. The helicopter made the final rounds, landing by each carcass so Niemeyer could verify it and use a screwdriver to remove any radio collar. Three of the wolves died in such hard-to-get-to places that he left them where they fell. Two he gathered and carried into the helicopter. Then they flew back to the nearby ranch, where livestock had been threatened by the wolves, and informed the rancher the job was done.

No one celebrated. The rancher asked, "You want me to scratch a hole?" He fired up his backhoe and dug a grave. Solemnly, Niemeyer skinned the pelts off the two and cut off the heads for research and educational purposes. They buried the remains eight feet deep, out of reach of other predators.

That night, holed up in a quiet motel down the road, "It weighed heavily on my mind," says Niemeyer, who as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho, both ordered the killings and carried them out.

The eradication of the pack enraged and sickened wolf advocates around the United States and Europe. Almost the moment the attack formation appeared over the wolves, an alert zinged on the Internet from an Idaho activist, "There is bad news; the entire Whitehawk Pack is being killed today ... why is the government using your tax dollars to do their dirty work from a helicopter?"

Niemeyer was deluged with hundreds of e-mails demanding that no more wolves be killed and asking how he could ever look in the mirror again. A poetic ode to the pack posted on a pro-wolf web site lamented, "I cry for the Whitehawk pack ... I cry for my brothers and sisters now dead ... The beautiful Alabaster now lies still ... My soul is wolf." Another wolf activist cursed the head of the federal wolf program for all the Northern Rockies by e-mail: "May your putrid corpse rot in hell."

Yet with support in principle from mainstream conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife, other federal wolf managers in the region performed similar lethal jobs around the same time. In the span of a few weeks from late February to early April, a busy season when wolves are breeding and having pups, the total authorized kill in Idaho and Montana climbed to at least 21 wolves.

Amid the emotions, Niemeyer and many others involved with wolves see the irony: The death toll is the result of a hugely successful restoration of wolves to the Northern Rockies - so successful that wolves now seem ready to spread naturally around the West to places such as Oregon, Washington and Colorado.

As the federal government moves toward taking wolves off the Endangered Species List and turning management over to states, it's likely that killing wolves with official sanction will become easier and more routine.

The main problem now, many insiders believe, is getting the general public to accept it.

Terrific dispersion

The surprises come fairly late in the story of the gray wolf in the lower 48 states. The story began as a familiar refrain: White settlers perceived an enemy and eradicated almost all the wolves. Then, as the Fish and Wildlife Service observes, "public attitudes toward predators changed." Just a year after the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, gray wolves were listed as endangered and in need of federal protection. There weren't many left to protect -- the only verified wolves in the U.S. then were in Alaska and in the canoe country of northern Minnesota.

Sheltered by the law, wolves dispersing naturally from Canada began to occupy territory in northwest Montana; by 1995, they formed six packs totaling 66 wolves. It's possible some roamed into Idaho. To push things along, that year the Fish and Wildlife Service, backed by the Clinton administration and nationwide public opinion, planted a few more wolves with great fanfare: Fourteen wolves from Canada were hauled into Yellowstone National Park and released, and 15 were released in the wilderness of central Idaho (HCN, 2/6/95: The wolves are back, big time). In 1996 a few more Canadian wolves - 37 - were hauled into Yellowstone and Idaho and released.

The millions of acres of wilderness in the Greater Yellowstone Region and in central Idaho proved to be ideal habitat. The 66 reintroduced wolves took hold, multiplied and spread so rapidly that plans to import more were canceled.