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Wolfer: A Memoir Paperback – December 4, 2010
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About the Author
Carter Niemeyer is an Iowa native and a biologist with two degrees from Iowa State University. He worked 26 years for USDA Animal Damage Control in Montana where he was a trapper, a district supervisor, and the West's wolf management specialist. He retired in 2006 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the federal wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho.
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And where people interact with wolves, and vice versa, is where the rubber hits the road. In this case, the road is wet, the tires bald, and the driving is done by committee, none of which speak the same language. It's not pretty.
In Wolfer: A Memoir, author, wildlife biologist, fur trapper, "G-man," and wolf specialist Carter Niemeyer describes his life, moving from a young "gopher-choker" to the glue that held the western wolf recovery program together.
Niemeyer's evolution as a wolf advocate was slow. The university training for a wildlife manager in the 60s and 70s was very traditional. There was game and non-game. Things that hurt game populations... bad. Things that help game populations... good. Wildlife was a "crop" to be grown and harvested, and the tools were the trap and the gun. Niemeyer was lucky enough to be mentored by some truly outstanding field biologists. And he graduated at a time when, if you weren't a veteran, it was difficult to get a federal wildlife job. Like many budding wildlife biologists, he supported himself with temporary assignments, waiting for his ship to come in. "I'm a skunk trapper from Montana," he once described himself, working on a rabies project. Little did he know what was in store.
When Niemeyer started working for Animal Damage Control (now Wildlife Services), a federal agency then fixated on protecting livestock from predatory animals in the west, it was like a dream come true. Now he was getting paid to do what he loved: trap, hunt, roam the open country, and kick dirt clods with the locals. His experience and education meant he was going to be successful, and he moved into the supervisory ranks.
Then wolves stepped into his life, first as a trickle, then as an all-consuming element. The transformation of a member of "the outfit" had begun. The process is what is detailed in Niemeyer's memoir. It's a first-person account of an extraordinary period, when, for the first time, an animal that was intentionally extirpated from a huge swath of the continent was intentionally, deliberately, brought back.
It is about the recovery of the gray wolf in the West, as seen in the trenches of the wolf wars. Here are a few tidbits of what is in store for the reader:
[As a young boy] "I sat through a lot of church sermons and Sunday school lessons, but it was monarch butterflies that convinced me that there is a God and that He is very talented" (p. 8).
[Investigating alleged wolf kills] "Most trappers I knew did their investigations with the tips of their boots, rolling the [dead] animal to one side, never taking their hands from their pockets. Yep, they'd say, looks like a wolf did it, or at least was 'possibly' or 'probably' responsible. It quickly became the fashion to blame wolves for all things dead" (p. 174).
"It is a fact that wolves kill so few livestock that the predators barely register on the pie chart of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service... I don't know anyone in the ranching business who went out of business specifically because of wolves" (p. 178).
"Simply being involved in the wolf issue got me crossways with some of the old-school predator killers in my agency, and with most of the bosses. I had to do things my way though, because I believed my way worked best. If I was going to be in it, I wanted wolves judged fairly. Animal Damage Control at all levels viewed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and [wolf recovery coordinator] Ed Bangs particularly, as little more than the enemy. Bang's agency was required by law to recover endangered species, but my agency just saw it as a touchy-feely-bunch of bunny-huggers" (p. 199).
"In the wolf business, there's no changing people's minds, so there's no point in arguing with them or trying to stop them from doing something illegal or just plain stupid. I've never known a wolf hater to become a wolf-lover or vice versa. When questioned, few people have neutral feelings about the subject, and those who are tolerant of wolves are usually afraid to express themselves" (p. 203).
"If wolves need to be removed from an area, let hunters do it. Fair chase is how it should be. I came to this way of thinking by being the one to have to kill wolves, and believe me, there's nothing macho about it. Nothing at all" (p. 218).
"Ed Bangs was right from the very beginning. Wolves have nothing to do with reality" (p. 322).
There's a taste of what you'll find. Niemeyer has high regard for Wildlife Services' Mark Collinge and Rick Williamson (deserved) and the FWS's Ed Bangs (also deserved), as well as many good folk with Defenders of Wildlife (thanks to Hank and Suzanne). He has very little positive to say about his direct supervisors in Wildlife Services... his supporters were often afraid to express themselves. Instead, they'd invite Niemeyer to give the presentations and take the heat. Carter obliged. It was his job.
As I read through Wolfer, it reminded me of another book, a biography of a man who may have killed more wolves than any single person: Alaska's Frank Glaser. Glaser, who killed more than 500 wolves, wrote "I don't mind shooting wolves but every time I find one in my traps I feel ashamed and can hardly get up the nerve to shoot they are the real gentleman of the predatory animal family." Wolves... myth and realty. Niemeyer, in Wolfer, tries to bring reality to the myth.
Like all well-told and memorable stories, Carter’s books are essentially books about change, not from ignorance to enlightenment, necessarily, but from one kind of understanding and orientation to another. Perhaps paradoxically, Wolfer and Wolf Land are deeply personal books and as such could have easily turned into polemic or, worse, vendetta writing. Tempting and deserved as either treatment may have been, such an oversimplified approach would have served no one. Carter’s writing does not simplify wolves and all that they inspire, including us; instead it seeks to reveal the complexity of wolves and our interactions, incomplete, difficult, and shameful as it may sometimes be.
Before anything else, however, Carter’s books are testimonies of the struggle, challenge, and pleasure of understanding and learning to live with others. . . other people, other animals—so that we might more fully realize the nature, scope, and promise of our own humanity. As is true with any worthwhile piece of writing—or any worthwhile piece of art, for that matter--Carter’s books confront us as readers and as actors; they invite us to discern our limitations and to better understand ourselves and everything in our care. And, ultimately, they invite us to change.
But be advised: no one—not you, nor me, nor Carter, nor anyone with an interest in wolves and their future—escapes scrutiny in the pages of these books, which teach us that no matter what we might think of ourselves, we all can do more when it comes to creating a world that balances and, in some cases, subverts human needs and wants with the needs of wolves and other predators. Again, no small feat. This is a task that requires our best minds, the bravest people, and their most ardent efforts.
On that note, I am just one of many readers to point out that, in addition to being philosophically significant, Carter’s books also contain a wealth of practical information on animal behavior and wildlife management, which any honest person knows has more to do with human management than anything else. But it is this dual ambition, realized in the context of over 30 years of experience, that Carter’s books have come to occupy an at once literary and ecological niche all their own. Quite frankly, I don’t see how anyone can really understand this issue without them.
Perhaps the best part of this book, for me, was Niemeyer's detailed description of everything he did before working with wolf reintroduction. His odd jobs for Fish & Wildlife and other similar agencies produced the kind of stories most people could never tell. I learned a lot about wildlife management in the US and about jobs I had no idea existed. This memoir inspired me to broaden my career considerations. In the very least, I hope it inspires other readers to think a little more about the amazing creatures sharing our world.