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for people who care about the West

A life in the wild


Wolfer: A Memoir
Carter Niemeyer
374 pages, softcover: $17.99.
BottleFly Press, 2010.

Former federal trapper and shooter Carter Niemeyer, the author of the memoir Wolfer, seems an unlikely advocate for wolves and other predators.

A "wolfer," after all, is a person who kills wolves, a job with its genesis in the great wildlife extermination campaigns that are as unique to our national spirit as their opposites. For every protective law like the Endangered Species Act, there have been a dozen federal programs dedicated to the destruction of wildlife. Niemeyer's title is not ironic; he's killed more than a few problem wolves in his day, along with trapping and gunning down what must be a towering mountain of coyotes. But after reading his book, one comes away thinking that Niemeyer could be nothing but what he is: an advocate for predators and a clear-spoken critic of a system that squanders taxpayer money in hare-brained schemes that benefit a select few while destroying a lot of wildlife. Wolfer is a rollicking tale of a life spent completely immersed in the lives and habits of wild animals and even wilder human beings.

Born in Iowa, Niemeyer is the product of a long American tradition -- that of the born outdoorsman who has more in common with the animals he pursues than with any human society beyond his family. He is a serious predator himself, finding no contradiction in hunting and killing the animals that he loves to watch and study. "What I wanted more than anything when I was 14 was to catch a fox. I was obsessed with it," he writes. Like his fellow Iowan, the hunter and conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold, Niemeyer would live to see a new, more destructive land ethic take hold of his state -- the kind of industrial farming that eradicates everything that doesn't contribute directly to the production of crops like corn.

By that time, however, Niemeyer, with a master's degree in wildlife biology, was living the rough-and-tumble (and far from prosperous) life of a government trapper in the West, wandering from the glaciated plains of Montana to the high-country wilds of central Idaho. Even as the American heartland erased the last vestiges of its wild places, the West was getting wilder, with recovering populations of grizzly bears and wandering disperser wolves. And Niemeyer -- trapping sheep-killing golden eagles, driving epic distances, living out of a camper or a tent, hearing the first rumors about wolf reintroduction -- found himself in the boisterous middle of history, where a thousand revelations into the essence of wolves and human beings, nature and politics, sparked into being. Niemeyer's life during these years, steeped in the blood of predator control and the stink of rotting carcasses, deep in trapping and ranching culture, makes for riveting reading.

Niemeyer's tale is even larger than he is -- and at 6-foot-5, he is formidable enough to be unintimidated by hostile ranchers or trappers. But he never casts himself as the star of the adventures he recounts. Instead, he is a kind of thoughtful everyman, beset by marital troubles, poverty, doubt, befriended by eccentric outcasts, often bossed around by lesser men, rattling along in a bucket-of-bolts old truck, hungry, cold, and always, always, enthralled with the wild animals that he, in the end, serves rather than destroys.

Wolfer is a book for everyone who has heard wolves howling in the wild distance, or longed to do so. It's a book for cattlemen and wildlife advocates and for those who are both, or neither -- anyone who has wondered at the epic tale of wolf recovery in the West. There's no polemic here. In fact, one of the delights of the story is how its utter reasonableness regarding wolves and other predators will infuriate extremists on all sides of the conflict. As Niemeyer said from his home in Boise this past winter, "I got used to the eco-nuts, long time ago, threatening me 'Niemeyer, if you kill another wolf, it'll be the last thing you do!' And now, all I have to do is say something reasonable about wolves, and the full attack is on. 'Niemeyer, the revolution is about to happen and you are on the list! We're gonna get you!' " He then burst out laughing, still amused by it all, after all these years and miles.