Gray Wolves are in trouble now that they’re no longer classified as endangered.
In April 2001, a U.S. government wildlife trapper named Carter Niemeyer choppered into the mountains of central Idaho to slaughter a pack of wolves whose alpha female was famed for her whiteness. He hung from the open door of the craft with a semiautomatic shotgun, the helicopter racing over the treetops. Then, in a clearing, Niemeyer caught a glimpse of her platinum fur. Among wolf lovers in Idaho, she was called Alabaster, and she was considered a marvel—most wolves are brown or black or gray. People all over the world had praised Alabaster, had written about her, had longed to see her in the flesh. Livestock ranchers in central Idaho, whose sheep and cows graze in wolf country, felt otherwise. They claimed Alabaster and her pack—known as the Whitehawks—threatened the survival of their herds, which in turn threatened the rural economy of the high country. She had to be exterminated.
When Alabaster appeared in Niemeyer’s sights, a hundred feet below the helicopter, her ears recoiled from the noise and the rotor wash, but she was not afraid. She labored slowly along a ridge, looking, Niemeyer says, “like something out of a fairy tale.”
Then he shot her. At the time, wolves were considered a rare species in Idaho and across the Northern Rockies, and they were protected under the Endangered Species Act. But they could be targeted for “lethal control” if they made trouble—if they threatened a human being, which almost never happened, or, more commonly, if they were implicated in attacking cattle and sheep. The Whitehawks allegedly had been enjoying a good number of cows and sheep that spring and were said to have killed at least one rancher’s guard dog.
As a trapper for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and later as a wolf expert for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Niemeyer was trained to control predators. In 26 years working for the government, he had killed thousands of coyotes. But wolves are a different kind of kill. As predators, they are exquisite. Niemeyer had taken a liking to wolves. He respected them. When he necropsied Alabaster at the kill site—gutting her, stripping her pelt—he found she was pregnant with nine pups that were two weeks from birth, almost fully formed. He buried each pup.
Canis lupus, the largest of the planet’s wild dogs, once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. The creatures are powerful—the largest males, six and a half feet from tooth to tail, weigh 140 pounds—and they are agile and cunning. They run in packs of seven to ten animals that consist of a father and mother—the alphas—along with pups and subordinate males and females, unrelated to the family but welcomed in their midst. The wolf is an apex predator, at the top of its food chain, keeping prey from overpopulating, which maintains a balanced ecosystem.
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).
Following a lawsuit filed by 12 conservation groups that challenged the decision, the U.S. District Court in Montana found that the department had “acted arbitrarily in delisting the wolf” and reinstated the act’s protections. Judge Donald Molloy pointed to a glaring discrepancy: Biologists had determined that only with the genetic commingling of the three “distinct population segments” of wolves—in central Idaho, Yellowstone National Park, and northwestern Montana—would the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf have a chance at long-term survival. A 2009 study in BioScience Magazine concluded that absent this genetic exchange, the population would be “genetically depleted, small, and ineffective in terms of ecosystem function.” The Interior Department’s own environmental impact study, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had come to the same conclusion. Yet the department had removed the Endangered Species Act protections “without any evidence of genetic exchange,” wrote Judge Molloy, who found a “possibility of irreparable harm” if the delisting went unchallenged.
The matter remained at an impasse until President Barack Obama’s newly appointed interior secretary, Ken Salazar, resurrected the Bush-era delisting plan in April 2009. The decision infuriated pro-wolf conservationists, though it was not unexpected. Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, comes from a family of five generations of ranchers. A new lawsuit was filed by a coalition that included 14 environmental groups, among them the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Humane Society, and smaller outfits like the Center for Biological Diversity. While the suit was pending, Idaho and Montana opened a hunting season that resulted in the culling of more than 500 wolves—some 32 percent of the entire Northern Rockies population. A year later, in August 2010, Judge Molloy again ruled in the conservationists’ favor. He determined that the delisting violated the letter and the spirit of the Endangered Species Act; he found no evidence of genetic exchange among wolf sub-populations. He also ruled that Fish and Wildlife had failed to properly oversee wolf management plans in Idaho and Montana. The judge ordered that year’s wolf hunts to be canceled.
The ongoing litigation drew the ire of Republican politicians throughout the West. Denny Rehberg, Montana’s lone congressman, presented two bills during 2011 for a legislative delisting of the wolf, including one to “amend the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to provide that Act shall not apply to the gray wolf.” The bills went nowhere, but Rehberg, who was gearing up to challenge Democrat Jon Tester for his U.S. Senate seat in 2012, had sparked a kind of arms race of anti-wolf rhetoric. The Republican governor of Idaho, Butch Otter, announced that he was ordering his state wildlife managers to “relinquish their duty to arrest poachers,” thereby freeing up Idaho hunters to continue shooting wolves. Otter also signed an emergency law that authorized him to declare a statewide “wolf disaster.” Montana Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat, weighed in with the Delisting Gray Wolves to Restore State Management Act of 2011, which died in committee. Tester floated his own wolf-delisting bill; it also went nowhere.
“Democrats have never in the entire history of the ESA let bills like this go through,” says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “In the past, no matter how aggressive the Republicans have been about undermining the ESA, we have been able to rely on Democrats to put up an aggressive fight, threaten to veto legislation, and wage a public campaign to defend the ESA.”
Then, almost overnight, the Democratic position changed. According to multiple sources, Salazar and Tester put together a deal to let delisting go forward in Congress. “Tester convinced the White House that his re-election campaign would be in jeopardy without the delisting,” Suckling says. “We heard this in very high-level conversations with Tester’s people and with Interior.” Salazar, according to sources, argued that he couldn’t get the wolf delisted administratively due to the lawsuits, so Congress needed to take action. (Salazar declined interview requests for this story.)
Tester joined forces with Republican Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson to settle the issue. In lieu of presenting legislation to attack the Endangered Species Act and wolf protections directly, they wrote a legislative rider into the 2011 federal budget bill. It would enact Salazar’s April 2009 delisting rule—the one that Judge Molloy had determined to be illegal under the ESA—and also bar any judicial review of the delisting, putting an end to the lawsuits. In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Salazar endorsed the rider, saying, “We support the language crafted and introduced by Senator Tester.” The White House signaled its acquiescence by remaining silent. On April 9, amid tense negotiations over the threat of a government shutdown, the rider—the only one in the budget bill—passed with all but three Democrats in the Senate voting in favor. On April 15, the president signed it.
Tester declined several requests for interviews. However, a spokesperson said, “Montana’s wolves are a recovered species and must be responsibly managed like all other recovered species. Senator Tester worked hard to reach a bipartisan, science-based solution that brings wolves back under state management and works for Montana.”
“This wasn’t even about the wolf. It was about keeping Tester in office,” says Denise Boggs, director of the Conservation Congress, a nonprofit grassroots environmental group based in Montana. “Obama and Salazar calculated that they could sacrifice the wolf—and the ESA—in order to keep Tester’s seat in Congress.”
Never before had a species been delisted as a result of congressional fiat. An open letter to the Senate signed by more than 1,200 concerned biologists, urging legislators to vote against the rider, warned that the “fate of every species on the endangered species list (or any candidate for that list) would then be subject to political interference.” Suckling says that the legislative delisting of the gray wolf “never would have happened if Obama had said, ‘No, I’m not gonna sign it.’ The real surprise here is the remarkable and unprecedented betrayal of the Endangered Species Act by a Democratic president.”
Senator Tester and Congressman Simpson had been lobbied by what at first glance appeared to be a wide-ranging anti-wolf coalition. It included various sportsmen’s groups; the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which views the proliferation of wolves as a threat to elk hunting; and the National Rifle Association, which sees in the continued protection of the wolf a backhanded slap at gun culture. But ranching and livestock associations dominated the anti-wolf lobby. Out of 47 groups listed by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as “calling for Congress [to] stop the manipulating use of the Endangered Species Act to tie up wolf delisting in the courts,” 37 represented branches of the livestock industry. Not least among them was the powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents the $44 billion cattle-production industry, and its affiliated lobby group, the Public Lands Council, whose stated mission is “preserving the natural resources and unique heritage of the West.” Tester has been the Senate’s top recipient of livestock lobby money during the 2012 election cycle.
The livestock industry wields astonishing power over federal land-use policy in the West, and the industry’s concern over the fate of the wolf was a proxy fight over who would control the land. According to the Western Watersheds Project, an Idaho-based nonprofit that monitors the livestock industry, an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion is spent each year in state, federal, and county subsidies to support the survival of ranching on more than 250 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. For the benefit of public-lands ranchers, the federal government clears forest, plants grass, replaces native vegetation with genetically modified exotic flora, builds roads and cattle guards and fences, dredges springs and seeps, diverts streams, blows up beaver dams, “improves” habitat by bulldozing and crop-dusting, and monitors the health of livestock. Department of Interior economist Robert Nelson, analyzing government aid to public-lands ranchers in the 1990s, referred to it as “a pocket of socialism.”
“It’s almost a matter of religiosity that the real costs of ranching are paid for by the public,” says Brian Ertz, media director with the Western Watersheds Project. “Democratic and Republican congresspersons alike make their way up through political environments of extreme livestock-culture-dominated political organizations. The statehouses are dominated by livestock interests, and that’s where the federal representatives cut their teeth.” Tester, Ertz points out, was a cattleman himself.
The livestock industry’s power extends far enough that it has secured its own federally funded wolf-killing unit, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called Wildlife Services. Largely unknown to the public, Wildlife Services began in 1931 as the Branch of Predator and Rodent Control. It changed its name to Animal Damage Control in 1974 and took its current name in the 1990s. Its chief mandate in the Rockies is the killing of predators—cougars, coyotes, wolves—through trapping, snaring, hunting, aerial gunning, and dispersing poisons across public lands. Last year, the agency spent more than $1.1 million on wolf control in five mountain states. Ranchers assert that wolves today are plundering livestock in record numbers and that the work of Wildlife Services is indispensable.
Carter Niemeyer worked for Wildlife Services for 26 years. By the end of his tenure in 2000, when he joined the Fish and Wildlife Service to oversee wolf recovery in Idaho he had concluded that agents considered themselves “the hired guns of the livestock industry.” The agents live among the ranchers; their children attend the same schools. It’s not surprising that they often adopt the same point of view and, Niemeyer says, regularly inflate the number of wolf depredations.
“Most of the trappers I knew did their investigations with the tips of their boots,” Niemeyer says. “It quickly became the fashion to blame wolves for all things dead.” But Niemeyer says that when he conducted his own investigations, too often he found that the rancher’s claim that a wolf did it was either a lie or a delusion. “I was amazed,” he writes in his memoir, Wolfer, “that conservative, God-fearing rural folks could conjure up such absurd ideas about how a farm animal became dead.” The ranchers whose claims he refused to certify fumed and cursed and threw their Stetsons against the wall. Everywhere the wolf appeared, he was told, livestock were not only under attack but generally declining in quality. “Wolves are supposedly costing ranchers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually running the weight off sheep and cattle,” Niemeyer says. “I don’t know where anybody has proved this but anecdotally it sure sounds convincing, don’t it? Bullshit. Document it.”
The ranchers’ assertions are reflected in the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which relies for its data on what amounts to unverified reports from ranchers and the investigations of Wildlife Services agents. In Idaho during 2010–2011, the Statistics Service reported 2,561 cattle lost to wolf attack. When Fish and Wildlife investigated, it found that only 75 of the attacks could be verified. According to the Statistics Service, sheep killed by wolves in 2010–2011 came to 900, but Fish and Wildlife investigators could only verify 148. Even using its own apparently inflated statistics, the USDA found that in 2010, less than a quarter of a percent of U.S. cattle, or 0.23 percent, were lost to predators (the predator list included not just wolves but also coyotes, cougars, bobcats, lynx, bears, and “others”). By contrast, in 2009, Wildlife Services was responsible for killing roughly 12 percent of the total population of wolves in the Northern Rockies.
Idaho’s current management plan calls for the state’s estimated 750 wolves—about half the Northern Rockies population of 1,600—to be reduced to 150 over the course of a six-month hunting season. I asked the Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf-recovery coordinator, Edward Bangs, about the rationale for this number. “The issue has nothing to do with science,” Bangs said. “The issue of how many wolves is enough is totally about what people want and how many wolves people will tolerate.”
Last October, a hunter named Victor Turchan hiked into a forest of pines in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho to kill a wolf for the season. He climbed on steep hills where he knew elk liked to gather; where there were elk, there would be wolves on the prowl.
The wolf packs in recent years had increasingly harassed the elk in the Bitterroots, thinning the herds, and the business Turchan runs during the summer and fall—a pizza restaurant and RV park near the town of North Fork—depends on the elk for survival. If the wolves kill too many elk, the elk hunters will not find easy prey in the mountains, hurting businesses like Turchan’s.
Turchan sighted no wolves that day and got no kill. But he had been doing his best to inspire others to take up the cause. I’d initially stopped at his restaurant because the sign out front caught my attention: “Tag a Wolf,” it said, “Get a Free Pizza.” A middle-aged man and a sharp-dressed woman walked in, and we got to talking about how wolves killed their son’s three dogs. “You sure came to the right place for wolf haters,” the woman told me. Her husband chimed in: “Wolves are very good at what they do, which is stalking and killing.”
Turchan directed me to an essay called “Why They Love Predators,” written by a retired Fish and Wildlife Service agent named Jim Beers. Beers had repudiated his old employer—he had worked for Fish and Wildlife for 34 years, as a wetlands biologist and then as a special agent enforcing the Endangered Species Act—and had become a hero in the anti-wolf community in Idaho, where groups like the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition have taken to denouncing wolves as “government-sponsored terrorists.”
When I called him at his home in Minnesota, Beers told me that the wolf was not in fact endangered. “They’re all over Asia. They’re ubiquitous in Alaska and Canada. The idea that they’re endangered is bullshit.” The reintroduced wolf in the U.S., said Beers, was “an insidious thing, a genie out of the bag.” I asked him if wolves weren’t being demonized in the manner that historically has been their lot: the wolf cast as the devil’s minion, as a friend to witches, as symbol of man’s bestial nature, as the enemy of civilization itself. Beers raised his voice. “Why do you think people came to those conclusions? Was it all fable? Why did the Irish breed wolfhounds specifically to kill wolves? Why did their dogs wear spiked collars? You think all these people over all these centuries saying the same thing about wolves were all dumb superstitious ignoramuses?”
Wolf reintroduction, according to the wolf haters, was undemocratic, a top-down measure forced on the mountain states against the public interest. Yet, according to Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf-recovery coordinator, the congressionally mandated environmental impact statement on wolf reintroduction drew more public attention and response than any proposed action in the history of the service.
The anti-wolf people say the reintroduced wolves from Canada are bigger, more bloodthirsty, more dangerous, and that the wolves in the U.S. prior to extirpation in the 1930s were meek and easily dispatched. They say the “new wolves” are foreigners, an invasive species. These new wolves kill for sport, as Victor Turchan had explained to me. “Sport-killing? It’s just endless bullshit,” Carter Niemeyer says. “These are people talking through their hats. And if the wolves that were here were so gentle and sweet, less wild and smaller, why did we kill them all by the 1930s?” It is said that these wilder wolves have put dozens of hunting guides and outfitters and restaurateurs like Turchan out of business by decimating elk. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks reports that “elk numbers in some areas have declined, due in part to wolf predation. Yet in other areas where wolves and elk interact, elk numbers are stable or increasing.”
What the elk-hunting industry wants, says Niemeyer, who shoots an elk every year for the meat, is hunting that requires no effort and little skill, a kind of vanity hunting. When wolves were reintroduced, elk adapted. The herds, once loose and relaxed, became tightly packed and watchful. They fled from open range and spent more time in the cover of the woods. Today, they’re more difficult to hunt. They are smarter—the species, in other words, has improved.
In Yellowstone National Park, biologist William Ripple, a professor at the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, has found that when there were no wolves, elk ran amok. They overgrazed the banks of streams, and they ate away the sprouts of aspen trees, resulting in stunted groves. After roughly 15 years of wolves on the move in Yellowstone, the aspens are taller and healthier, and the willows on the stream banks recovered. When the willows recovered, they shaded the water, which cooled, and in the cooling water the trout returned. The trout were food for the beaver, which dammed the waters and built ponds. Songbirds returned to the ponds, and so did frogs.
“Yellowstone increasingly looks like a different place, for the first time in 70 years,” Ripple says. He compares this remarkable restoration in Yellowstone with four other national parks where no wolves were present. “In these parks, the loss of large predators allowed large herbivores” (such as cattle, sheep, and elk) “to heavily impact riparian plant communities, thus leading to a loss of biodiversity.” Only in Yellowstone, with its healthy wolf population, does Ripple find “ecosystem restoration.” A study Ripple co-authored last year in Science magazine concluded that “the decline of large predators” in all regions of the world “is causing substantial changes to Earth’s terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.” The loss of “apex consumers” from ecosystems, says the report, “may be humankind’s most pervasive influence on nature.”
I still wanted to see a wolf in the wild, so I telephoned a 63-year-old woman named Lynne Stone, head of a nonprofit wolf-advocacy group in Ketchum, Idaho, the Boulder-White Clouds Council. Stone told me to meet her by the side of the road in the Big Wood River Valley just before dusk, 20 miles north of Ketchum, and we would go howling.
“I grew up as a hunter, on a wheat ranch in eastern Oregon,” Stone told me. “I grew up riding horses and wearing a cow-girl hat and going to rodeos. I raised sheep as a girl. I grazed sheep, I sheared sheep. And now I look at the people who hate wolves. I ask, why do they want to kill so bad? The anti-wolf thing has brought out the most violent rhetoric I’ve ever seen, the most rabid people.”
She told me about emails and phone calls from hunters who promised her they would skin and burn wolves, not merely shoot them; who sent photos of dead wolves to taunt her; who posted on the internet photos of coyotes crucified on fence posts and coyote fetuses arranged to form numbers in the snow; who sold frozen coyote pups on the Internet; who purposely gut-shot wolves with a .22. “And that way the wolf dies a slow, horrible, painful death,” Stone said. “That way it could take a month to die.”
She scanned the valley. Dusk had come. It was the time when wolves will appear in the open and talk. Stone said nothing for a moment and prepared herself. She planted her feet square on the earth, tapped her left foot twice, seemed for a moment to do a dance, huffed like a bear, drew a great breath into her burly chest, and lowered her head as if she would fall forward. Then she faced the sky and the evening clouds, and she sang out. The howl was mellifluous and full of longing and also sad. We waited, but there was no answer.
Christopher Ketcham has written for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and GQ, among other magazines. Excerpted from The American Prospect (April 2012), a monthly magazine covering politics, culture, and policy from a liberal perspective. Support for this story came from the Nation Institute.