The War on Wolves
Updated: May 11
Throughout human history, the wolf has always been one of Nature’s most magnificent and maligned creatures, both revered and reviled by different cultures. In white culture, the dichotomy was so deep-seated even America’s earliest conservationists demonized the wolf.
John James Audubon wrote often in the early 1800s of shooting wolves with enthusiastic bloodlust. In 1814 he wrote of assisting a farmer in mutilating trapped wolves: “A pack of wolves robbed a farmer of nearly the whole of his sheep and one of his colts. He was now paying them [the wolves] back in full.” Audubon wrote of being amazing by the “ingenious pit trap” where the farmer bludgeoned the wolf to death. And he recounted a pack of dogs ripping apart a terrified wolf as a “sport” he and the farmed enjoyed.
As a young man in the late 1800s, another famous American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, wrote of killing a wolf: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes... I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. In those days, we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf.” He recounts how he “pumped lead” into a frolicking mother and her pups as they played with “wagging tails and playful maulings.”
Lewis and Clark also wrote of killing wolves but marveled at their curiosity and friendliness with humans. Many of their accounts describe wolves nearly underfoot and very tame. Long centuries of benign interaction with the Plains Indians had taught frontier wolves not to fear humans. In fact, Clark wrote of getting close enough to a tame wolf that he then bayoneted it to death.
Nearly all native tribes in North America honored the wolf as a mighty hunter, intelligent, fearless, curious, with a very sophisticated culture in which they worked together to survive. Native Americans revered the wolf, most tribes regarded them as powerful spirits and many creation legends included the wolf as a supernatural spirit or guardian.
No doubt about it, the wolf is a natural-born killer, a carnivore with a capital “C.” Their jaws have twice the crushing power of a pit bull, German Shepherd or Rottweiler—1500 pounds per square inch (ppsi) versus less than 750 for the toughest domestic dog. Although both have 42 teeth, a wolf’s are nearly double the size. An alpha male wolf can weigh 180-200 pounds.
Dogs evolved from wolves and share 99% of the same genetic DNA. They were considered separate species until 1993, when genetic sequencing proved otherwise. Now both are the same species: canis lupus; dogs are a subspecies: canis lupus familiaris.
Still, wolves possess superior primal strength and endurance. A wolf can sustain a sprinting speed of about 40 miles per hour (mph) for well over a minute and can “dog trot” at around five mph all day long. They can swim up to eight miles, aided by webbed feet, and can smell more than a mile away.
Wolves tend to mate for life. Alpha wolves (males and females at the top of the social pecking order) breed the most, whereas lower-ranking wolves sometimes do not mate at all. This social stratum helps ensure the strongest cubs and limits the number of cubs in a pack. Some lower-ranking females develop “false pregnancies” in which they lactate and help the alpha female nurse her cubs.
Litter size ranges from one to eleven, although four to six is average. Only about 60% of cubs reach the yearling stage. The entire pack nurtures, feeds and rears the pups. When a puppy dies, the mother will sometimes take the little corpse around to pack members, as if showing their respects, then buries the pup.
Before white settlers ever came to North America, an estimated two million wolves roamed North America. European immigrants brought with them a primal mythology and pathological fear of the wolf, reared in childhood on terrifying fairytales and fables depicting the wolf as a loathsome beast that ate children. European history witnessed werewolf trials (different from witch trials) in which countless human souls were burned at the stake, or criminals were walked to the gallows wearing wolf heads, then hung alongside a wolf. The last wolf in England was killed in 1500, in Ireland, 1770, and in Denmark, 1772. So it was with trepidation Europeans came to the new world to discover it was rife with wolves.
Pioneer hatred of the wolf was so deep-seated wolves became the mostly widely hunted animal in American history. As whites became more common in the West, wolves learned to be wary of them. But, as their habitat diminished and large game was destroyed to near extinction, they turned to domesticated cattle, ranches and farms to survive. Ranchers and state governments then offered bounties on wolves. Wolves were shot, roped, trapped, gassed, poisoned, bludgeoned, and strangled wholesale. They were hung from trees like outlaws. Montana’s territorial government used two-thirds of its budget against predators.
By the early 1900s, the wolf was nearly extinct. In 1905 the federal government passed a law to trap wolves, coyotes and their pups, inject them with sarcoptic mange and then release them throughout the state to spread the wasting disease. Between 1883 and 1927 Montana paid bounties on a staggering 111,545 wolves and 886,367 coyotes. Subsidizing both ranchers and wolfers, the state paid bounties on 23,575 wolves in 1899 alone. The extermination was so thorough, by 1920 Montana paid only 17 bounties on gray wolves.
In 1914, Congress legislated the final nail in the coffin for wolves: it funded a federal division called the Biological Survey to distribute 3.5 million strychnine baits across the West annually. The plan was that sport hunters would become the keystone predators and harvest surplus game. Most Americans to even conservation groups like the Audubon Society cheered when wolves vanished from Yellowstone in 1926 and hunters killed the last few pitiful survivors.
Those last survivors became famous. Montana’s last wolf was Snowdrift. South Dakota’s was the Custer Wolf. Rags, Whitey and Lefty were Colorado’s last survivors. The very last, Three-Toes, was so desperate to find a mate on the wolfless prairie she found a ranch collie before field agents killed her collie mate, their pups and, finally, her.
The ultimate irony was that the wolf had disappeared from North America just as ecologists Joseph Grinnell, E. Raymond Hall and Aldo Leopold were discovering the crucial role wolves had in the natural ecosystem. Their insights and modern scientific research would eventually lead to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and to wolf recovery plans of the Fish and Wildlife Service (successor to the Biological Survey).
Fear of wolves has largely been irrational. Unlike some large carnivores, wolves have never caused a human fatality in the U.S., according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and only three attacks have been recorded since the department’s inception.
Alligators have killed about 20 humans since 1948, cougars 25 since 1890, and bears 70 since 1900. Venomous snakes kill about 15 annually in the U.S. Statistically, the wolf’s domesticated cousin is far more dangerous than any wild carnivore: roughly 30 Americans are killed by dogs annually. The most lethal creature in the U.S.? Deer. They cause more than 150 car fatalities annually, not to mention many millions of dollars in auto collisions, crop damage, and landscape damage. Wolves, not surprisingly, were traditionally their main predator.
According to a National Park Service study in Science Daily (February 1, 2010), wolves provide greater biodiversity to ecosystems and many surprising benefits. Wolves affect deer and elk herd behaviors and cause wider fertilization of land and less erosion of river banks, which helps forests to re-generate. Another surprising benefit: anglers are reporting that trout fishing is substantially improving in wolf habitats. Why? Because wolves are the most dominant predators of beaver, whose dams sometimes impede trout migration, especially brown trout. In fact, the DNR spends a lot of time and money trapping beaver to control over population. Another benefit of wolves is ecotourism. Increasingly more venues are offering ecotourist experiences, including state parks and forest, and the National Park Service.
Still, co-existing with large predators has its challenges, primarily livestock predation. States that have reintroduced wolves have reimbursement programs for ranchers and farmers who may lose livestock. And Science is bringing new hope for prevention of wolf predation of livestock and pets. One 2011 study in the national journal BioScience reveals that attacks on livestock are highly localized and can be predicted and are limited to certain wolf packs. Prediction and prevention can be helpful. Some farmers and ranchers are using watch donkeys who will fight off wolves, cougars and even bears.
But, still, the animus against wolves continues today. When wolves were delisted in 2013 after a hundred years on the brink of extinction, several states immediately legalized wolf hunts, wolf baiting, and hunts with up to six hounds (in which taxpayers were required to subsidize hunters who lost dogs in the hunts). However, litigation put wolves back on the endangered species list. At the present time, hunting wolves is illegal in the lower 48. But their status is precarious as the present administration has proposed stripping them of endangered status. It seems sport killing of wolves continues to dog its future...
PHOTOS: (1-3) The North American gray wolf is a magnificent predator, extremely intelligent and social with a very sophisticated culture. Usually alpha males and females have the babies and the rest of the pack helps care for them. Other females will even lactate so they can feed the pups as well as the mother. (4) Alpha males can be very large and weigh up to 180-200 pounds. (5) A wolf’s jaw is more than twice as strong as the strongest domesticated dog’s jaw, exerting 1,500 pounds of pressure vs. less than 750 of a domesticate dog. (6 &7) Working together as a pack, wolves can take down a full-grown adult elk or buffalo, but it’s dangerous, and sometimes deadly. (8-11) Nearly all Native American tribes in North America revere the wolf in legend and culture. Shamans or tribe members sometimes wear wolf headdresses and pelts as a source of strength, intelligence, and bravery. (12) Folk tales and nursery rhymes all over the world but especially in Europe demonized the wolf as evil, a killer of children and a fearful beast. (13) In Europe, werewolves were believed to be real and truly feared. (14) The Irish werewolf was vastly different from the European version, regarded as a shapeshifter and protector of children and wounded men and believed to be recruited by kings during war with invaders. (15) It was not until Dances with Wolves that Hollywood began to depict wolves in a sympathetic light. (16-17) Pioneers, ranchers, farmers, bounty hunters, and the government killed wolves wholesale to near extinction by about 1900. It wasn’t until the 1973 Endangered Species Act that wolves became protected and the government began programs to bring the wolf back. (18) As soon as wolves were taken off the endangered species list in 2013, some states legalized hunting, including use of semi-automatic weapons and aircraft. But then litigation relisted wolves as endangered again.
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