Friday, July 1, 2011

Wolfer by Carter Niemeyer

Wolfer: A MemoirI've lived in my neighborhood for about fifteen years, and have spent plenty of time getting to know my neighbors over the back fence, at weddings and barbecues, but I must say it's quite different getting to know a neighbor by reading their memoir. I've known Carter for a number of years, but his job kept him traveling quite often, and I just got a chance a couple of weeks ago to have a long conversation with him, during the course of which he was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, Wolfer, a winner of the Independent Publishers Book Award, which it richly deserves.

Carter has spent the better part of five decades, since he was shown by his father how to trap gophers when he was nine years old, in the business of Animal Damage Control. He put in many long hours studying the habits of all the creatures he pursued, so as to be more effective catching them, and this book has lots of great tidbits about animal - especially predator - behavior. The Hancock County Courthouse, where he grew up in Iowa, paid a bounty on all gopher feet turned in. He says, "...I dumped the feet onto the counter and a white-haired lady took a pencil from behind her ear and sorted them into groups...Nobody was grossed out and nobody scrubbed off the counter when we were done." Simpler times.

Eventually, he graduated to bigger game, and pretty much financed his bachelor's degree in Wildlife Biology by selling fox furs. He went on to work on a master's degree, working as a lab instructor, taking undergraduates on field trips to "look at habitat features, identify birds and animals in the wild, and recognize their presence from tracks, scats and vocalizations" - all skills with which he was intimately familiar. While trapping skunks for his thesis study on rabies, he started out buying sardines and tuna to bait his traps, but soon lucked onto the Kentucky Fried Chicken dumpster, where he found plenty of material for his 30 traps. When the customers were grossed out by him picking through the trash for food, the manager began meeting him at the back door with boxes of leftovers, instead - which not only baited his traps but often fed him and his assistants.

The list of animals Carter has trapped in his lifetime is rather amazing, including skunks, foxes, coyotes, golden eagles, bobcats, racoons, and many more I've probably already lost track of. Eventually he would move on to the most controversial creatures of all, wolves. Our federal government for many years now has footed the bill for trappers to remove predators that threaten ranchers' livestock, using any means that comes to hand, including traps, poison, shooting from helicopters and small planes.

If you've ever believed your goverment representatives when they've described a program as temporary, or claimed that a tax would expire, I have the following quote from Carter's book for you to consider:
"Most of the rancher who came west to run cattle and sheep supported a heavy-handed predator control program courtesy of the federal government. When the profit margins on sheep plunged and may of those ranchers switched to cattle, they retained their attitudes about predators, insisting that the killing program continue. Coyotes, the predator that does the most damage to the sheep industry, can't do much damage to a calf that isn't small, weak or sick. Full-grown cattle are just too big for them. But the government spends millions of dollars a year killing coyotes anyway because it's what's always been done. It's still true today."

Another quick hit about sheep I liked, "...wolves and coyotes were doing a lot more cleaning up than killing - when it came to cattle, anyway. Sheep were a different story. Everything was waiting to kill one of those." Poor, pitiful, stupid sheep.

Carter worked for a number of years for the government in Montana, dealing with packs of wolves that had migrated over the Canadian border into the area around Glacier National Park, and that were accused (often wrongly) of killing livestock. Most of the time the wolves were trapped and relocated, though sometimes the repeat offenders had to be killed to stop their predations.

In the mid 70s, however, the Endangered Species Act was passed, and change was about to come upon the West. The act mandated that the federal government had to create a plan for restoring species that were endangered in the U.S., such as wolves, to their old habitats. While a small majority of the public had a live-and-let-live attitude about wolves and their reintroduction, the extremists on both sides of the debate raised their voices the loudest. Carter had a unique front row seat throughout the process, and describes events in a wry, understated manner.

I used to live in Northern Idaho, and some of Carter's descriptions of the old ranchers really took me back. He's nailed them - spot on!

If you live in the Northwest, and have only heard what the newspapers were willing to publish about the controversy over wolf reintroduction, you really ought to pick up a copy of this book. The stories contained within its pages are mostly amusing, sometimes disgusting, and occasionally maddening. It's not my usual cup of tea, but I loved it. It may appear in some Christmas stockings this year.


Blah Blah Blah said...

""Coyotes, the predator that does the most damage to the sheep industry, can't do much damage to a calf that isn't small, weak or sick.""

most ranchers would totally disagree with this statement... the coyotes get the calves WHILE they are being born.. they aren't even fully out of the birth canal

Jon said...

BBB - I'm merely quoting the book, but what part of "small" and "weak" doesn't apply to a calf while being born?