HAMILTON - Carter Niemeyer didn't set out to become an expert on wolves.

For the first 26 years of his career, the author of "Wolfer, A Memoir" was the man behind the gun who killed predators that threatened livestock.

This week, Niemeyer will tell that part of his story in appearances around Missoula.

He'll also let people know how he learned to appreciate the need to bring wolves back to the American West.

Right out of college, Niemeyer moved to Montana from his home state of Iowa and used trapping skills perfected from childhood to kill coyotes, foxes and black bears as a government trapper for a little-known agency called Animal Damage Control.

When wolves began crossing from Canada into Montana and ranchers started complaining about predation of sheep and cattle, Niemeyer was called upon to investigate livestock deaths.

A nonprofit group called Defenders of Wildlife compensated livestock owners for animals that officials like Niemeyer confirmed were killed by wolves.

Livestock producers wouldn't be paid without confirmation.

The results of the investigations were often the difference between life and death for wolves.

That conflict often led to face-to-face confrontations with people on both sides of the wolf issue.

Niemeyer was not a rubber-stamp kind of guy.

His detailed forensic investigations with their meticulous scientific notes and refusal to back down from furious landowners and environmentalists caught the attention of officials preparing to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Niemeyer became part of the team that captured the Canadian wolves that became the nucleus of the packs that roam the Northern Rockies today.

Along the way, he gained respect and understanding about the predator and the polarizing effect it had on the human population.

Niemeyer saw there were two sides to this story and his search for the middle ground cost him friends and respect with Animal Damage Control officials (now called Wildlife Services).

He left the agency in 2000 for a job overseeing wolf recovery in Idaho for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By the time he retired in 2006, Neimeyer had handled more than 300 wolves.

"Not once did any of us ever have a close call," he said Monday from his Boise, Idaho, home. "We weren't stalked. We weren't chased. There were no problems at all."

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These days, Niemeyer spends a good deal of time promoting his book, "Wolfer, A Memoir," which traces his young infatuation with trapping in Iowa to years spent controlling predators with traps and aerial gunning to his final career challenge of working with wolves and the public who care about them.

It's not always an easy thing to do.

"In some circles, a wolf expert is a curse word," Niemeyer said. "You say you're a wolf expert and then you better be ready for the rotten tomatoes and eggs. Nobody really gives a dang for experience."

But from Niemeyer's point of view, it's about time that people on both sides of the wolf issue start being honest about wolves on the landscape.

"There are a lot of groups out there carrying the victim card right now," he said. "I think the ungulate thing is being overplayed dramatically right now. ... Livestock groups and sportsmen are playing the victim."

Considering his experience with wolves, Neimeyer doesn't believe there's any validity to people's claims they've been chased or threatened by wolves.

"I absolutely don't believe any of those stories," he said. "They are absolute bunk."

At the same time, Neimeyer believes that hunting wolves in the Northern Rockies won't be detrimental to their populations.

"A hunting season will take some of the pressure off wolves," he said. "Sportsmen will be able to do what they think they can do about controlling numbers. The uniqueness will eventually wear off."

"How many wolf pelts does anyone need to hang on their wall?" he said.

Considering the kind of steep and remote terrain that wolves inhabit, poaching won't have much impact either.

"Most people are not physically adept to cover much real estate," he said. "There are so many wolves now that poaching would never harm them. They are here to stay."

"Everyone is gloom and doom about wolf numbers," he said. "With 1,600 to 1,700 wolves now, things are really good. We should be thinking about what we're going to do for the next step."

It will be important to continue to have good people in the field, he added.

"You need good people who will do good and honest investigations," Neimeyer said. "You can't just paintbrush it and say wolves killed it without anyone going to take a look before you send up the gunship."

"It's easy to lapse into that," he said. "That what was done with coyotes."

The challenge will be getting past the division created around the whole wolf issue.

"People are so polarized anymore that I'm not sure that anyone listens to me anymore," Niemeyer said. "There are so many of the moderates - the middle of the road folks - who are just fed up and tired, fearful and intimidated."

"A lot of people have just gone underground," he said. "They're not getting involved anymore. It's just gotten too crazy."

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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