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Know the West

Wolf at the door

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


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, [email protected] 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.

Today the reintroduced wolves, natural dispersers and their descendants have spread into Wyoming as far as the southern fringe of the Wind River Range; in Montana to the outskirts of Bozeman, Missoula and Helena; in Idaho to the outskirts of Sun Valley and within 40 miles of Boise. The number of wolves in the U.S. Northern Rockies has exploded to more than 540 - plus a couple hundred new pups in the dens right now, not yet included in the official count.

With at least 34 packs breeding, and local populations increasing as much as 30 percent per year, the spread of wolves appears likely to continue at a dramatic pace.

"They are terrific dispersers. It wouldn't surprise me to see a thousand wolves in the Northern Rockies within five years," says Tom France, who heads the National Wildlife Federation regional office in Missoula, Mont.

To the east, the gray wolf population in Minnesota has spread over roughly 40 percent of that state and into Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Minnesota now has about 2,500 wolves in 300 packs, including some passing through the suburbs of Minneapolis and reaching nearly to North Dakota; Wisconsin and Michigan are up to about 500 wolves total. One disperser was reported recently as far south as Missouri.

In the West, three gray wolves dispersing from Idaho have shown up in Oregon's Blue Mountains in the past two years, and there have been at least 40 unconfirmed sightings of wolves as far west as Bend, Ore. In Washington last February, a biologist in a scouting plane saw a gray wolf eating a dead moose, a few miles west of the Idaho border.

Vast gray-wolf habitat or pockets of habitat are in line to be reoccupied in Washington, Oregon, northern California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, northern Arizona, New Mexico, and the Dakotas, wolf conservationists and wolf scientists believe.

There are still some doubts about the future of the wolf, but the optimistic predictions make it sound like a new golden age is dawning. Wolf-support centers, doing field work and educating the public, have sprung up from Minnesota to California, pushing for wider wolf recovery, a goal shared by the full spectrum of conservation groups, hardliners to mainstreamers, and some landowners with large holdings, such as billionaire Ted Turner.

Indians have stepped up, too. The Nez Perce tribe in Idaho, which long advocated for the return of the wolf, is monitoring the packs in that state, tracking them from the air and ground and helping separate them from livestock (HCN, 2/26/01: Return of the natives). In Arizona, the White Mountain Apache tribe is taking the lead in restoring the Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest (see story page 14).

The momentum has wildlife advocates almost euphoric: "Our goal is to have wolves the length of the Rockies, from New Mexico to the Arctic. And conceivably, in New England. Then we would really have restored wolves to North America," says France of the Wildlife Federation.

Unwanted: Wolves

Not that everyone is smiling. Randy Richard was in the woods near Fortine, Mont., in March, hunting mountain lions with his pair of bluetick hounds, when wolves interrupted the hunt. According to Richard, his hounds had a lion treed when a pack of five wolves swept in, killing one dog and severely tearing up the other.

Describing how the wolves did in his 90-pound blue-tick named Crow, Richard told the Daily Inter Lake newspaper, "they ... dragged him, castrated him, disemboweled him and consumed him. The only thing that was left was the forward part of his shoulders, his front legs, his neck and his head."

Around the same time, different wolves, repeatedly raiding ranches or ranchettes in the Ninemile Valley in northwest Montana, killed four pet llamas. In May, another wolf attacked two cocker spaniels inside their yard on a ranchette in southcentral Montana, near Livingston. The wolf tried to break one spaniel's neck, leaving gashes on its shoulders that required surgery. The angry owner told the Associated Press, "We don't need wolves in civilization."

In the political realm, ranchers continue to wield considerable power in Western states, and generally they still don't like wolves running around. Complaints also come from some hunters and hunting outfitters, who believe the wolves leave fewer elk and other game for them to go after. Most biologists insist wolves are no danger to overall game populations, but some hunters find fewer elk where they like to hunt.

Wolves "are bloodthirsty killers, and they're decimating our elk herds," says Ron Gillette, an outfitter and motel owner in Stanley, Idaho, who's running quarter-page ads in newspapers around the state, demanding that all wolves be removed. He tells the Associated Press that wolves are "cruel, vicious, land piranhas, wildlife terrorists."

But by most measures, there have been fewer problems than expected, so far. The wolf recovery effort in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has cost about $17 million in total spending by federal agencies, including the National Park Service, and even that looks like a good deal: More than 100,000 people have gotten to see wild wolves in Yellowstone Park alone, by federal estimate, and wolf-related tourism pumps $20 million a year into the economies of the three states.

"There's a huge boost in outfitter-guided trips" that feature wolf-watching, says Meredith Taylor, a Wyoming Outdoor Council field director who has run an outfitting business for 21 years. Her customers come from around the U.S. and Europe, Australia and South Africa. They want to see wolves in the wild any time of the year, and "if it involves wolves killing elk, they want to see that."

The wolves have also tuned up the wilderness ecosystems, applying natural pressure to elk and other prey, leaving prey carcasses for scavengers ranging from eagles to beetles. With the elk herds more on the move, those grazing impacts have been reduced, making way for re-emergence of willows and aspen.

Even for ranchers, total livestock loss to wolves in the three states has turned out to be a tiny fraction of what's lost to any one of the following: coyotes, bad weather, disease, or even packs of wild dogs.

Wolf predation "can be a big deal" for individual ranches with private pasture or leased public land in wolf territory, though, concedes Ed Bangs, the top federal wolf manager in the region. Yet now there are voices of moderation such as Margaret Soulen Hinson, a third-generation Idaho rancher whose family's ranch near Weiser has been hit the hardest of any in the state. Since wolves were formally brought back in 1995, the ranch has lost 105 sheep to wolf predation.

"I wasn't a proponent of bringing the wolves in, in any way, shape or form," Soulen Hinson says. "But the wolves are here now and we have to learn to live with them. We need to look for common ground."

She's found some with a Defenders of Wildlife program that reimburses ranchers for losses. Administering the Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf Compensation Trust, Defenders has paid her ranch more than $8,000 for the lost sheep.

Recognizing that losses can be hard to prove, especially in rugged forest where people are not tending the stock daily, Defenders has adopted a liberal stance, paying for more damages than the federal wolf managers identify - about $215,000 to 188 ranches in all. In the three Northern Rockies states, from 1995 to the end of 2001, Defenders paid ranchers for a total of 188 head of cattle (mostly calves) and 558 sheep (mostly lambs).

"We don't (find and pay for) every one. We do get most," says Suzanne Laverty, who runs the Defenders wolf program in the Northern Rockies.

Defenders continues to develop other peacemaking strategies, such as training Great Pyrenees as livestock guard dogs and supplying them to ranchers. The group also trains ranchers in how to use bean-bag or rubber bullets to scare wolves away; supplies electric fencing and other nonlethal anti-wolf devices; and supplies hay so some cattle are not released to pastures near wolf dens.

"A lot of the ideas we get come from ranchers," and there is an increased feeling of trust, says Laverty.

The National Wildlife Federation, as well as Defenders, is working on creating new strategies, such as wolf easements, which would allow those willing to pay for wolf habitat to connect with ranchers willing to sell some rights. Defenders also organized a group called Wolf Guardians - several dozen volunteers who gathered in Idaho last summer and this spring to camp out and hike with sheep and cattle herds, trying to keep them separated from wolves.

Along with flashing brilliant strobe lights and shouting to scare wolves away from a herd of 2,000 sheep, says Julie Palmquist, a Wolf Guardian who came from Washington in April, "I was singing some show tunes - 'Annie Get Your Gun' and some 'Grease' tunes."

She was trying to save the sheep, but even more, she was trying to save the Whitehawk Pack.

"Nobody wanted to go there"

From the time wolves started showing up again naturally, the feds have been targeting those that prey on livestock, either knocking them down with tranquilizer darts and relocating them, or killing them. Ranchers who spot wolves killing livestock are also allowed to use lethal control. In this way, wolves are managed differently than most other endangered species. It's a political gesture to the locals, and even ranchers on middle ground like Soulen Hinson expect it.

Nonlethal methods are typically tried first, including asking ranchers to allow room for wolves. But the more wolves show up on people's doorsteps, the more control actions are taken, so that by now, more than 120 wolves have been killed legally and more than 117 relocated. Eight packs have been wiped out. Wolf-haters doing illegal kills are still estimated to take a higher number than the official program does, although this year is shaping up to be a record year for official killing.

"We've found we can do it surgically" - killing only the specific wolves that cause problems, Niemeyer says. "We've gotten very good at it."

Wolf populations prove capable of absorbing such losses. Even if people killed 30 percent of a local wolf population, the population would continue to increase, Bangs says. To wipe out almost all wolves 70 years ago took a systematic regionwide war using poisons and baited traps, and that isn't happening now.

The feds say they are bending over backwards to give wolves the benefit of the doubt in the face of their growing popularity. The Whitehawk pack had been in the public eye ever since it settled on the East Fork in spring of 2001 and began roving over the hill into the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. The Sawtooth NRA is 750,000 acres of sagebrush valley and three snowcapped ranges which include the Salmon River headwaters and more than 400 lakes - Idaho's most popular outdoor destination.

But since coming into contact with ranch operations in the East Fork and the Sawtooth NRA, the wolves killed at least seven calves, 17 sheep and a guard dog, according to Niemeyer's records. One sheep was the 4-H project of a rancher's daughter, and had become a family pet. To discourage the pack from livestock, the feds killed only in increments: one wolf, then another two, another two, then another three, not including the final day.

Toward the end, the pack was hanging out on the Challis National Forest hillside, scouting cattle that were in fenced pastures near ranch houses on the East Fork bottomland, day after day, night after night. Niemeyer and Williamson, working with the Wolf Guardian volunteers, ranchers, and the Nez Perce tribal program, rigged anti-wolf devices all over the pastures, including a perimeter of Radio-Activated Guard boxes. When a radio-collared wolf approaches, the RAG boxes react to the collar and emit sounds of gunfire, glass breaking, interstate traffic, helicopter blades, galloping horses, men yelling. Almost every wolf in the pack was collared by then, so it was hard for them to sneak in without setting off the sound blasts.

The men also fired many dozens of warning shots - explosive "cracker shells" from their shotguns, right into the rock formations where the wolves were hanging out. The volunteers camped out around the herds, making noise too.

Still the wolves kept coming off the hill into the pastures. The 4-H sheep was "shredded" only a hundred yards from the family's house, Niemeyer says.

Niemeyer saw no way out. The pack had a taste for livestock which was being passed from generation to generation, and there was nowhere to relocate the wolves where they wouldn't be on someone else's doorstep, he says. The ranch families in the area are tired of answering reporters' questions. But when Niemeyer told them he'd decided to eliminate the rest of the pack, he recalls, they reacted by saying, "Oh, no."

"Nobody wanted to go there," Niemeyer says.

States taking over?

All along, the Fish and Wildlife Service's goal was to have 30 breeding wolf packs re-established for three consecutive years, spread equally between the three "recovery areas" - central Idaho, northwest Montana and Yellowstone (mostly within Wyoming). That goal will be accomplished by the end of this year, regional wolf manager Bangs says. Then the feds will move to take the gray wolves in the Northern Rockies off the Endangered Species List and turn management over to the three states, just as if wolves are no longer any more special than coyotes or elk.

As a form of security, all three states have to put together wolf management plans, approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service, or wolves won't be taken off the federal list.

There are plenty of uncertainties. Some conservation groups and the Nez Perce tribe support the idea of having the states take over wolf management, but are also watching the process closely. State wildlife managers have expertise, says France of the National Wildlife Federation, and this is how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work.

The states are going along, to varying degrees. Idaho's Legislature took a stand with old-fashioned rhetoric just last year, demanding that all wolves be removed. But the lawmakers managed to choke off their rhetoric enough to pass a wolf management plan in March. It was largely an in-house political process dominated by ranching interests, and it took 18 drafts, with the Idaho Conservation League negotiating specific terms in the final version.

Montana is going through a more open process with relatively little disagreement. Conservationists and ranchers served on an advisory council laying out general principles, including that wolves are a native species that belongs in the state. A draft plan was prepared with scientific input, then public hearings were held and more than 4,000 comments were collected from all over the country.

Montana's draft "looks quite promising," says David Gaillard, of the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance. Still, as Montana develops a final plan later this year with another round of public comment, Predator Conservation wants the state to set a goal of having more wolves than in the draft plan.

Both Idaho's plan and Montana's draft indicate that when each state has 15 verified wolf packs, killing of problem wolves by official action or by ranchers will become even easier. Hunters will probably be allowed to take some. If the population in either state falls below 15 packs, regulations would make it harder to kill wolves and the emphasis would shift toward protection.

The feds would linger in the background for at least five years evaluating progress, with the possibility that Northern Rockies wolves would be put back on the Endangered Species list if necessary.

Dragging its heels and hating any federal idea, even if the idea is for the feds to back off, Wyoming's Game and Fish Commission gave the OK just last month to begin drafting a state plan there, too.

Money is an issue, as usual. The states want everybody else (the federal government) to pay the costs of wolf management, which they estimate at $800,000 per year per state. They also would like the government to set up a well-funded trust to pay for management of wolves and grizzly bears in perpetuity. Yet polls conducted in all three states have shown that a majority of locals supported the wolf recovery effort.

That hasn't stopped local politicians from railing against wolves. In Wyoming's Fremont County, home to several wolf packs, the county commission has passed recent ordinances declaring war on the wolves, raising concerns in the environmental community. "These guys are sending a message to the public that it's OK to eradicate the wolves. I don't have any confidence that without the Endangered Species Act (in effect), wolves will be allowed to survive," says Steve Thomas, a Sierra Club representative based in Sheridan, Wyo. "The state doesn't have the political will to protect wolves."

"Handing the conservation program back to the states would put it right back in the hands of the interests that caused the problems to begin with," warns Bill Snape, chief lawyer for Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington, D.C. "Attitudes can change, but we need to be aware of the risks. We could be taking a giant step backward."

The geography is also questionable. The federal recovery effort for gray wolves set minimum goals for territory in the West, in two distinct pieces: the Northern Rockies and Arizona/New Mexico (where the effort is backing reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves). Even if wolves in the Northern Rockies are taken off the Endangered Species list, the wolves in the Southwest would continue to be protected.

But as wolves spread into other states such as Colorado and Oregon, the feds say they won't be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Defenders of Wildlife believes that wolves in any state should be federally protected until they get established. Otherwise, "we have not allowed wolf recovery to play itself out," says Snape.

"There is no way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can say its job is done in the West," says Brad Bartlett, a board member of Sinapu, a Colorado group that wants wolves established there. The feds "are required to conserve the species throughout its historic range. Those words are written right into the (Endangered Species) Act."

Hardline wolf advocates are likely to challenge the feds and/or the states with lawsuits over this next phase of wolf management, which makes the future all the more murky.

The wolf recovery program is changing into "a killing program," warns Jon Marvel, head of the Western Watersheds Project based in Hailey, Idaho. The Project already has a lawsuit going against the U.S. Forest Service, charging that wolves should take precedence over livestock grazing in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

The Watersheds Project has proposed using the federal budget to buy out all public lands ranchers in the West. Wolves are one tool in the group's toolbox against ranching. "The issue is much broader," says Marvel. "Why should ranchers be the determinant of public policy on public lands? Livestock are the problem. Wolves are not the problem."

Ninemile wolves may be next

Niemeyer's own career demonstrates the turnabout on wolves. He put in 25 years with a different federal agency, the USDA's Animal Damage Control Agency (now called Wildlife Services, where Williamson works), which is dedicated to controlling predators for ranchers. He helped develop nonlethal methods of controlling wolves, then last year signed on with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help run the wolf recovery. He says the job of finishing off the Whitehawk Pack gave him no pleasure, but that as a society, we're no longer in "the warm and fuzzy stage" of wolf recovery.

Before the Whitehawk Pack occupied the territory around and in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, two other packs had tried to live there, and those wolves also were either relocated or killed due to conflicts with livestock. More wolves are bound to move into that piece of habitat, and the same scenario may play out again and again.

Or, another famous wolf pack may be killed off in Montana's Ninemile Valley, northwest of Missoula. The wolves there were featured in a nonfiction book by well-known writer Rick Bass in 1993. They're also the wolves that are killing pet llamas now, and already this year the feds have killed four in the pack.

"Wolves can live anywhere we allow them to live," Niemeyer says. "The whole wolf-management business is a social issue, not a biological issue."

Niemeyer hopes for the day when anything that happens to a wild wolf won't automatically turn into a news headline. The government assigns a number to each wolf, and "we strongly discourage people from naming these wolves. Then it's like killing Fifi or Fluffy," Niemeyer says. "That complicates it." The alpha female that led the Whitehawk Pack was "an extremely pretty animal, uniquely white," he says, but he thinks it's too bad that some wolf lovers named her Alabaster.

Jon Marvel is among those who believe wolf management has gone way too far. Any wolf that has a number or a radio collar or a name, "it's not even a wolf anymore," he says. "It's a recipe for destroying wildness. It's a semi-domesticated animal. We might as well call it livestock."

But Niemeyer keeps coming back to the basic goal, saying everyone should focus on "all the wolves we've saved." He hopes the level of rhetoric will continue to drop. "We've got to get away from the name-calling and get the humanity back in this business."

Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News.

Rocky Barker, who covers the environment for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, contributed to this story.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'I respect wolves. I still don't like them killing our sheep.'

- 'There isn't much room for more wolves'

- Wolves still struggle in the Southwest


  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a central archive on wolf recovery, www.r6.fws.gov/wolf, or contact Ed Bangs, in Helena, Mont., 406/449-5225, ext. 204, or [email protected];
  • Defenders of Wildlife, Suzanne Laverty, Boise, Idaho, 208/424-9385;
  • National Wildlife Federation, Tom France, Missoula, Mont., 406/721-6705;
  • Western Watersheds Project, Jon Marvel, Hailey, Idaho, 208/788-2290, www.westernwatersheds.org;
  • Wolf Recovery Foundation, Ralph Maughan, www.forwolves.org, [email protected]

For more on the wolf story, tune in to Radio High Country News on our Web site, www.hcn.org.