Gray Wolves to the Slaughter
(Page 2 of 9)
With European settlement and the decimation of its native prey—buffalo, elk, mule deer—the wolf was bound for destruction. It was now killing for its meals the domesticated sheep and cattle that settlers had ranged across the grasslands and the mountains. Hated for its depredations, the wolf was hunted mercilessly. By 1935, the gray wolf had disappeared almost entirely from the U.S.
Decades later, during the high tide of 1970s environmentalism, conservationists began to agitate for a government-sponsored recovery. The evidence suggested that the loss of the wolves had destabilized the ecology of the Northern Rockies. Following the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook the recovery of the wolf in the region. It wasn’t until 1991, however, that Congress mandated an impact study of wolf reintroduction. By 1994, funding had been approved for Fish and Wildlife biologists to remove 66 gray wolves from Canada, where the animals still numbered in the tens of thousands, and truck them south for release in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.
Niemeyer, now retired in Boise, was among the trappers who traveled to Canada in 1995 to capture and radio-collar the reintroduced wolves. The reintroduction, he told me, had been one of the epic wildlife-recovery stories in U.S. history; in little more than 15 years, the number of wolves in the Northern Rockies had gone from 66 to roughly 1,600. Yet concerns about the threat posed by the wolves to cow, sheep, and elk populations had led to a stark reversal. After spending upward of $40 million studying the animals—then capturing, collaring, tracking, and protecting them—the federal government last year scheduled wolves to be killed in huge numbers across the Northern Rockies. In April 2011, following a series of lawsuits and an unprecedented intervention by Congress, canis lupus was removed from the endangered species list.
Today, as a result of the delisting, anyone can shoot a wolf. Wolves can, in some circumstances, be shot on sight. Niemeyer shot 14 wolves in the course of his government career; the Whitehawks were his last. He maintains a taxidermy studio in his garage and says he’s “not into the warm and fuzzy thing” when it comes to wild animals. “I’m not grossed out by wolves being hunted, trapped, killed,” he says. “What I’m caught up in is honesty. What you have with wolf delisting is half-truths, untruths, hysteria, and just downright craziness.”
The ranching industry in the American West has been the historic enemy of wolves, so it was fitting that ranchers in Montana and Idaho called for hunting them almost from the moment of their reintroduction. The American Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit advocate for farming and ranching interests, had even sued preemptively in 1994 to stop the reintroduction, but a federal court rejected the suit. In 2008, however, Western livestock interests found a sympathetic ear in the Bush administration’s Department of the Interior, which issued what would become the first of multiple orders to remove the wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
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