Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3
Tracking the White Wolf
Richard Littell is a graduate of Cornell University (BA), Harvard Law School (JD) and Goucher College (MFA in Creative Nonfiction). A lawyer by training, he has been a senior official in federal government agencies that regulate U.S. industries. He has published two books on endangered wildlife, and his nonlegal articles have been published in national magazines and newspapers like the the New York Times and the Washington Post. Some of these publications are reproduced on his website, www.richardlittell.com.
The white wolf trudged on. Cold and wet, soaked through by the heavy Idaho winter’s snowfall, the wolf had not eaten for two days. Now it was night, and the wolf could think of nothing except the freezing cold and its empty stomach.
Suddenly, the wolf scented another animal. Three hundred yards away, a ewe shuffled back and forth across a rancher’s meadow. Maneuvering downwind, the wolf crawled through the snow until it got closer, finally sinking into a crouch. Then it sprang forward and attacked.
The wolf was upon the ewe too quickly for it to escape. The wolf leaped at the animal’s neck. It’s massive canine teeth, each of which was two and one-half inches long, pierced the ewe’s throat.
The ewe fell dead.
The wolf gorged itself.
At eight o’clock the next morning, Curtis Niemeyer arrived at the rancher’s meadow.
Niemeyer was not only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ranking wolf-recovery official in Idaho, he was also the agency’s most experienced tracker. If the animal that attacked the ewe was a wolf, Niemeyer would have to track it and capture or kill it.
Niemeyer didn’t like to kill wolves. He disapproved of the way that, six decades before, hunters and trappers had used guns and poison to eradicate the area’s entire wolf population. So, in 1995-1996, Niemeyer had been an active member of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s crew that released 22 wild Canadian wolves into Idaho’s mountainous wilderness. Niemeyer viewed wolves as beautiful, majestic creatures that are very vulnerable. Whenever he had to track a killer wolf, Niemeyer tried to capture the wolf alive and to have it transported to a backcountry area where it could be released unharmed.
Now, in the farmer’s pasture, Niemeyer kneeled beside the dead ewe’s body and sliced open the animal’s hide. Sometimes, a predator will feast upon the lifeless body of a farm animal that had died from disease or old age. But Niemeyer could see that the ewe’s insides were bathed in blood, proving that the animal’s heart had been pumping blood when the attack began. So Niemeyer knew that the ewe had been alive when the predator set upon it.
Next, Niemeyer had to decide whether a wolf or some other predator was responsible for this ewe’s death. Niemeyer’s blond hair fell over his eyes as he bent to examine the predator’s footprints leading away from the ewe’s carcass. The predator had placed each hind foot in the track made by its front foot. Niemeyer knew that this is characteristic of both the coyote and the wolf, whose narrow chests allow both fore and hind legs to swing in the same line. That ruled out wild dogs and other predators whose broad chests cause their tracks to be offset, straddled.
Niemeyer decided that the predator had not been a coyote. Coyotes have short narrow teeth; their bites are shallow and small, like needle punctures. The tooth marks on the ewe were wide and deep. In addition, wolves have a powerful crunching bite that crushes and pulverizes the prey’s muscles. This predator had made hamburger of the ewe’s flesh, an unmistakable signature of the wolf.
Finally, Niemeyer picked up pieces of the predator’s scat, or feces, black against the white of the snow. Showing them to the rancher, Niemeyer said, "Look, these are real big, about an inch and a half, three times as big as a coyote’s stuff, and they’ve got a tear-shaped taper on the end. No, I hate to say it, but this was definitely a good-sized adult wolf."
Later, when Niemeyer followed the wolf’s tracks across the adjacent farmland, he plucked off a clump of white hair that the wolf had snagged on a rosebush.
Niemeyer decided against trying to track the wolf that day. He could tell from the tracks, which left traces of mud on the hard ground, that the wolf had left during the night’s rains. It would be miles away by now. Wolves are nocturnal creatures, and the sun was already high in the sky. Better to try to spot it from the air in the early light of dawn, when it would be roaming again.
Unclipping the cell phone from his waist, Niemeyer punched in the number for his regular helicopter pilot. "We’ve got to find a big white wolf, and it’s headed north." Giving the address of the sheepherder’s ranch, Niemeyer told the pilot to pick him up at sunrise the next morning.
At 6:30 am, the Bell 206 helicopter settled onto the meadow where Niemeyer was waiting. Niemeyer put on his Nomex flight suit and gloves and his SPH-4 aviation helmet, then began loading his equipment. Because he hoped to capture the wolf alive, he’d brought his equipment that would immobilize the wolf temporarily, without permanent injury. The two main weapons were a Palmer dart gun and, for close-up capture, a jab-stick pole tipped by a syringe loaded with an immobilizing drug. But Niemeyer knew that not all wolves could be subdued; some would attack and try to kill the human tracker. For those emergencies, Niemeyer also loaded his ancient Model 50 Winchester 12-gauge shotgun.
Finally, Niemeyer climbed into the helicopter, seating himself directly behind the pilot so that the two of them could see the objects on the ground in exactly the same way. The helicopter took off, circled over the sheep farm and headed north. About a half hour later, not long after the sun burned off the tendrils of morning clouds, the pilot spotted the white wolf running across a meadow that bordered the forest.
Hearing the helicopter approach, the wolf broke stride, turned and bolted towards the trees. Niemeyer yelled, "Head him off, head him off!" Anticipating Niemeyer, the pilot had already turned the craft, racing to cut off the wolf’s retreat, to get between the wolf and the forest, to turn the wolf back towards the open meadow so that Niemeyer could get a clean shot. But the wolf refused to comply. It stopped; it turned back; it dodged and bolted around; it ran under the helicopter. The wolf just kept trying to get back under the cover of the trees.
The copter was twenty feet off the ground. Niemeyer leaned way out, held by the nylon cord clipped to his safety harness. He aimed and shot his dart gun. The first aluminum dart, tipped with a powerful sedative, went wide. The next two shots were headed right on target, but the wolf kept swerving and turning, escaping the darts. Then the wolf disappeared under the tree cover.
Niemeyer had only one dart left. He was not going to let this wolf get away. Following Niemeyer’s command, the pilot landed in the meadow, near the wolf’s escape route, and Niemeyer climbed out. Niemeyer threw his helmet into the copter, took his dart gun, and hung the strap of his shotgun over his shoulder. Then he disappeared into the forest.
Still covered by snow, the forest ground showed the wolf’s tracks and muffled Niemeyer’s footsteps. The wolf’s tracks ended at a large cleared space. Entering the clearing cautiously, Niemeyer focused his attention on a snow cave, where the snow had drifted over a fallen tree, forming a cave-like cavity under the tree. The wolf had crawled into the snow cave. There it sat upright. Although the wolf’s body was in full view, the wolf had hidden its face and eyes behind the cave’s solid upper portion.
Niemeyer smiled with relief. He knew that, since the wolf could not itself see anything, the wolf believed that no one could see it. When he had encountered this situation before, Niemeyer had been able to walk up to the wolf, aim his dart gun or jab-stick, and shoot the wolf in its exposed hip. Within five minutes, the powerful sedative would render the wolf unconscious. Then it would fall over, ready to be trussed up for removal to a backcountry wilderness where it could survive.
Niemeyer crossed the clearing. Suddenly, there was a loud cracking sound. Niemeyer had stepped on a tree branch hidden under the snow. Startled, the wolf dropped its upper body to the ground.
Seeing Niemeyer, who cut off the wolf’s exit from the clearing, the wolf became anxious. It bared his fangs, emitting a deep guttural sound from its throat. Saliva ran down from its mouth. Niemeyer dropped his dart gun on the ground and shifted the sling of the shotgun off his shoulder. The wolf dug his front claws into the ground and sank into a crouch. As the wolf lunged forward, Niemeyer raised the Winchester to his waist and pulled the trigger. The bullet met the wolf as its front legs left the ground, and the animal was dead when its body hit the ground.
Looking down at the wolf’s body, Niemeyer was saddened. He had shot wolves before. "I don’t love wolves and I don’t hate wolves," he’d often said. Niemeyer understood that, to save wolves, he must sometimes kill wolves. That is, to save wolves as a species, we must eliminate those wolves that, because they kill livestock, inflame many Westerners’ passions against all wolves.
Niemeyer wondered whether people could learn to manage wolves so that the killing could stop. He didn’t know whether that was possible, but he sure hoped that it was.