Wolf at the door

Now that the West's top predator has reached civilization's back porch, managers face some agonizing decisions

  • Wolf

    Sherm Spoelstra
  • HANDS-ON MANAGEMENT: Carter Niemeyer and Doug Smithprepare to radio collar two wolves from the Swan Lake Pack inYellowstone National Park

    William Campbell
  • WATCHFUL EYES: International interest has added a newpolitical dimension to the wolf recovery program. Here, watchersstudy the wolves in the Lamar Valley

    Jim Peaco, National Park Service
  • SAME OLD STORY: A wolf from the Sheep Mountain Pack killedin 2000 for killing cattle

    William Campbell
  • Wolf packs in the Northern Rockies

    Diane Sylvain

This week, HCN is resurfacing our writers' and editors' favorite stories from the archives. Have a favorite? Tell us by email: Kate Schimel, assistant editor, kateschimel@hcn.org or on Twitter: @highcountrynews.

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.

Apr 16, 2007 11:03 AM

I feel the ranchers have a responsibility to take better care of the animals they have. There's electric fences they can use, and other things they can do to help keep the wolves away. It's terrible to just get gun happy and go nuts killing these beautiful animals!!Whats next on the death list that may get in mans way??? It's always the easy way out it seems, lets kill everything that causes a problem!!! What a great way to be! Soon there won't be animals to worry about if keep going at this pace!

Apr 17, 2007 01:15 PM

electric fences wont do nothing to a wolf a gun will

Jan 31, 2008 10:58 AM

If we keep doing this soon there will be no wolves left. Then it will be another species after another and so on. what I'm saying is soon we will kill off every living thing and strip the earth bare of all it's resources

Stephen Wolfe
Stephen Wolfe
Sep 10, 2008 12:36 PM
The ignorance of some people is almost painful to read and hear about sometimes. First of all, a good fence can hold anything short of a tractor at bay. People always resort to shooting when they aren’t happy, anyone know why that is? I don’t, but I'd like to. Also, one of the biggest misunderstandings of all time is that of wolves. Are they shy, peaceful creatures, as most pro-wolf folks will say? The hell they are! Of course wolves kill, and of course they damage property, but so does an angered cow! Moreover, so do angry people. We attack wolves with a rancor that has as of yet to be given any real reason. I encourage anyone who doesn’t like wolves to ask yourself why. If you kill wolves, my question is more along the lines of "What the hell!?"
Did they kill you cattle? Well, get a fence. Don’t want to? Well, that isn’t the wolf's fault. It isn’t until wolves start killing people that we need to really step in, but EVERYTHING else is preventable. Don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with those who have lost valuable cattle to wolves, but you can’t punish a wolf for following its nature any more than you can shoot a hawk for taking away your childhood pet rabbit (that’s happened). They’re following their nature.

p.s. - and so help me if someone brings up my name (yes, it's happened before). My name has nothing to do with my stance.
Feb 20, 2009 08:24 PM
You shouldn't mention ignorance when you're talking about things you don't know anything about. You're not going to be able to fence wolves out of a cattle range, any more than you're going to build a border fence twixt here and Mexico--not for less money than reimbursing people fairly for lost livestock, not by any means. You could better afford to just buy out the ranchers altogether, but you'll have to find them something else to do.

I knew a Scott Wolfe at the U of MT long ago . . .
Wolf Management
Nov 19, 2008 09:57 AM
This is an amazing article! It looks at the whole picture rather than from one side. I applaud this kind of education and holistic approach.
Cowards shooting wolves....
mark hoffman
mark hoffman
Dec 02, 2008 01:58 AM
How great must these guys feel to shoot a wolf from a helicopter..after all, it is the wolf the these guys must have read about when they were kids, in the story of the ''Little Red Riding Hood''...A pray species like a deer can not survive without a predator that hunt's it. All we do is throw out of balance that has been there for thousands of years....But Nature will find it's way, no matter how many wolves or other animals these ''Heroes'' will shoot. I have been a pro fighter for 17 years, and I invite any of you cowards to face me..but I guess that would be too much of a challenge, since there will be none of your helicopters and guns to hide behind, but in case there is, I have also been a competitive shooter for the last twenty years. Not all creatures are helpless and get shot from the air, some of them will fight back.
Feb 18, 2009 10:06 AM
you sound like a troubled feller.what really matters on the method of killing wolves be it on the ground or air.if you had a robber in your house would you shoot to protect,samething goes in our pasture just happens to be a four legged thief
Feb 20, 2009 05:24 PM
yes its true i am in the northstar news in karlstad mn. grandforks herald and agweek. i wish it wasnt true would just as soon get along with everybody and every creature.i have no problem with some wolves but when is there to many when others get hurt.i had 83 cows out in my pasture lost 38 calves 4 cows i just bought these cows this spring for 70,000 its hard to come out on this with half calf crop.i am not the only one nieghbor lost 26 gets paid for 8,one lost 11 nothing paid for ,the problem is there is not much evidense left or none. dnr watched timber wolves in my pasture filling out one kill sight but this isnt enogh proof but bones every where. i can get along with you guys but you guys got to help us to if you want help from us. whats happening here is survival not just for us its for wolves as well.there is common ground somewhere here but it cant be at my exspense and forgotten about.you have any suggestions more than happy to work with you and the wolves. you can read my articles if you want scott syverson mnrancher