If there is one thing you will take away from reading Wolfer: A Memoir, it’s that Carter Niemeyer is a genuinely funny guy who did some improbably dirty work over his lifetime. A strong dose of good humor was likely a pre-requisite for his career of restoring gray wolves to the lower-48 states. His new memoir gives an unprecedented look not only into the life and work of a modern-day government trapper, but also into the behind-the-scenes activities that made recovery of gray wolves possible in the first place.
If you are into wolves, then you may or may not have heard of Niemeyer. He was one of the guys that checked on rancher’s livestock-damage complaints in wolf country through his job with Wildlife Services, and the guy who coordinated live-trapping gray wolves in Canada to reintroduce in Yellowstone. He’s also one of the guys who shot “problem” gray wolves dead from a helicopter, and darted them with drugs to collar or relocate them.
If you love wolves blindly, then you’ll probably be perplexed by Niemeyer’s loyalties. You may think, “How could someone who works for Wildlife Services — who kills animals deemed a nuisance to agriculturalists — possibly help wolves?” The truth is stranger than fiction, the saying goes, and Niemeyer may have been one of wolves best no-nonsense advocates.
You’ll learn in Wolfer that Niemeyer is a straight-talking outdoorsman who doesn’t believe in the myths pinned on any animal — and despite his favor among some ranchers, he steadfastly believes that wolves are not the demon people make them out to be. This belief put him at odds with his agency, and helped advance wolf recovery by leaps and bounds in terms of the on-the-ground relationships he forged with people affected by wolf recovery.
Wolfer is auto-biographical and recounts Niemeyer’s early upbringing and fascination with animals. Most of which he killed, starting with pocket gophers, for bounty money. It continues through his higher education in wildlife biology. His whole life, all he’d wanted was to be a government trapper. After his dad taught him to trap gophers, he gradually trapped larger and smarter quarry (skunks, foxes and coyotes). He taught himself to skin the animals, then stretch and dry their skins to sell their fur. Though you understand he is fascinated with wildlife, you never get the sense he questioned unlimited killing of wildlife that ranchers and farmers considered to be nuisance animals. That is, until he encountered wolves later in his life. (And Puckerpine, a porcupine he made into a pet after killing its mother and cutting her near-term fetus from her belly… but you’ll have to read the book to learn more about this story.)
As an employee of Animal Damage Control (now Wildlife Services), Niemeyer began answering calls from ranchers who believed their cattle and sheep were being harassed and killed by wolves in the early 80s. This was when wolves were naturally recolonizing parts of Montana, well before reintroduction took place. Niemeyer checked into every complaint, looking for the evidence. He never bought into flimsy stories and made decisions based on the evidence at hand. He checked for tracks around livestock carcasses, and matched the physical evidence of a scene to the rancher’s explanations. But what really made the difference between fact and fiction was when he skinned the carcasses. By skinning the dead livestock down to their hooves, Niemeyer could determine if a wolf’s bite or something else — like an infection, disease, poisonous plants, black bear or mountain lion — had killed the animal.
For me, things got incredibly interesting on page 156. Niemeyer had been called to investigate livestock deaths near Marion, Montana, so he checked out the ranch which looked to him “like they’d hit on hard times long before wolves showed up.” He found that hip wounds the rancher attributed to wolf bites were really infections from branding activities that flies then laid their eggs within. Still, the rancher was worked up over wolves chewing on his maggot-riddled calves, and Niemeyer’s agency pressured him to fix it. He soon discovered there were wolves around — just not on this guy’s ranch. He wrote:
I stood by my finding that no wolf pack was anywhere near the other ranch — because I knew exactly where they were living. But to cover myself, I set traps there anyway. I caught a few coyotes and shot another that came close when I blew on my predator call. The calves had some abrasions and minor wounds that could possibly be blamed on coyotes, and that was the justification. Something needed to die while Bangs was drawing up a plan. It was a shameful reality that this was the only way to get pressure off the wolves.
This anecdote was a turning point in Niemeyer’s life (at least the way he’s written it in his memoir). It was the beginning of his realizations that what he was tasked with doing — killing wolves blamed in livestock deaths and injuries, when they likely were not to blame — was unethical. The first half of the book establishes that ethics and logic make Niemeyer tick. In the second half of the book, Niemeyer traces the evolution of his own understanding of wolves and their relationship to people. He also outlines the conflicts he ran into with his agency when the inevitable difference between its culture clashed with his integrity. (By the book’s end on page 355, you definitely get the sense he has an axe to grind with his former employer.)
Niemeyer’s field-investigative methods allowed him to separate the real wolf problems from the imagined ones. He wrote: “In the short time I’d been looking at such situations, I’d found that wolves and coyotes were doing a lot more cleaning up than killing, when it came to cattle, anyway,” (pg. 222, referring to the predators scavenging upon already-dead livestock). His fact-based methods earned him the respect of Ed Bangs, who was (and is) tasked with Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf recovery. Bangs worked it out so that Niemeyer could work under the wolf-recovery project. Eventually Niemeyer came to be in charge of wolf recovery within the state of Idaho.
One element that shined through again and again in this book was Niemeyer’s use of language and anecdote. He has a folksy way of telling stories that I assume is similar to how he talks in real life. This narration brings the reader into his world of rural landscapes and small towns. You feel wrapped up in his life as he is re-telling it to you.
Another element that I appreciated was his use of detail. In the author’s note, Niemeyer tells us that he kept copious records and field reports from his career. While he may have written them as CYA documents, they proved to be a goldmine when it came to writing his book. His ability to name places, dates and people and describe scenes brings his anecdotes to life in a vivid sense. You feel like a silent observer, tucked in his back pocket, as he learns to dart and drug his first gray wolves, or when he’s hunched over a dead cow skinning it out at midnight with an angry rancher standing over him with a light.
But perhaps the strongest element of the book is Niemeyer’s own personality. His ability to write about his integrity and his relationships with people through the course of trying to recover gray wolves out West is the heart and soul of Wolfer. In true life, his character helped advance gray wolf recovery by working cooperatively with one person at a time. In the book, his character advances the story in a way that keeps you turning page after page.
Wolfer is self-published, and I have to admit I picked it up with a slight sense of trepidation. I feared the book would lack a certain sparkle and organization because it hadn’t passed through the labyrinths of professional editing. For the most part, my fear was proved wrong. (I did find the lack of discernible chapters hard to get past, structurally, but eventually I rode with it.) Overall, Niemeyer’s writing stands strong on its own. It’s action-packed and loaded with whit and hard-earned facts. His writing style contains a natural whiz-bang! action that sets a good pace. I’ve a feeling a professional publishing house would have slimmed the volume down by 75 to 100 pages, but the extra detail he provides is worth reading.
If you are interested in the field work behind wolf recovery, and if you are interested in the true character of an ethical trapper and outdoorsman, then put Wolfer on your reading list.