Saturday, August 4, 2012

Gray Wolves to the Slaughter

Wolf-Talkingby Christopher Ketcham, from The American Prospect, on UTNE Reader:

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.

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