This text was prepared from a 1902 edition, published by G. P.
Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. It was originally published in
1893. It is part II of “The Wilderness Hunter.”
Last week I raised the question about which species or subspecies of wolf ranged the Northern Rockies. Research published in the Smithsonian Institution questions whether the Canadian gray wolf, the much larger of the wolves, historically ranged in the Northern Rockies, more specifically Central Idaho, Greater Yellowstone area and parts of central and Southwestern Montana.
It is believed by some that the reintroduction of the Canadian gray wolf in the mid-1990s into Central Idaho and Yellowstone was only hastening the inevitable migration of the wolf from Northwestern Montana. Others, such as the Smithsonian, are questioning whether or not the larger wolf was the wolf that historically roamed Yellowstone back in the day.
Earlier today, included in my “Random Thoughts and Comments” blog, I mentioned these writings of Teddy Roosevelt. Outdoors people love to resurrect Teddy Roosevelt when they begin talking conservation and environmental issues, sometimes selectively so. Meaning no respect to Mr. Roosevelt but he was no saint in the woods by the standards of some today. The man loved a good hunt and found much sport in running down wolves with dogs and watching them fight to the death.
The true way to kill wolves, however, is to hunt them with greyhounds on the great plains. Nothing more exciting than this sport can possibly be imagined. It is not always necessary that the greyhounds should be of absolutely pure blood. Prize-winning dogs of high pedigree often prove useless for the purposes. If by careful choice, however, a ranchman can get together a pack composed both of the
smooth-haired greyhound and the rough-haired Scotch deer-hound, he can have excellent sport. The greyhounds sometimes do best if they have a slight cross of bulldog in their veins; but this is not necessary. If once a greyhound can be fairly entered to the sport and acquires confidence, then its wonderful agility, its sinewy strength and speed, and the terrible snap with which its jaws come together, render it a most formidable assailant. Nothing can possibly exceed the gallantry with which good greyhounds, when their blood is up, fling themselves on a wolf or any other foe. There does not exist, and there never has existed on the wide earth, a more perfect type of dauntless courage than such a hound. Not Cushing when he steered his little launch through the black night against the great ram Albemarle, not Custer dashing into the valley of the Rosebud to die with all his men, not Farragut himself lashed in the rigging of the Hartford as she forged past the forts to encounter her iron-clad foe, can stand as a more perfect type of dauntless valor.
My how things do change. The time that Roosevelt spent in the field crossing the continent from coast to coast and hitting all four corners, he encountered many wolves, or were they really wolves? Roosevelt takes great pains in this one chapter to describe the animals he saw, the names they were given and the habits that often carried daunting reputations.
Wolves show an infinite variety in color, size, physical formation, and temper. Almost all the varieties intergrade with one another, however, so that it is very difficult to draw a hard and fast line between any two of them. Nevertheless, west of the Mississippi there are found two distinct types. One is the wolf proper, or big wolf, specifically akin to the wolves of the eastern States. The other is the little coyote, or prairie wolf. The coyote and the big wolf are found together in almost all the wilder districts from the Rio Grande to the valleys of the upper Missouri and the upper Columbia. Throughout this region there is always a sharp line of demarcation[sic], especially in size, between the coyotes and the big wolves of any given district; but in certain districts the big wolves are very much larger than their brethren in other districts. In the upper Columbia country, for instance, they are very large; along the Rio Grande they are small. Dr. Hart Merriam informs me that, according to his experience, the coyote is largest in southern California. In many respects the coyote differs altogether in habits from its big relative. For one thing it is far more tolerant of man. In some localities coyotes are more numerous around settlements, and even in the close vicinity of large towns, than they are in the frowning and desolate fastnesses haunted by their grim elder brother.
Roosevelt tells us that “there is always a sharp line of demarcation [sic]” between the larger wolves of the Upper Columbia River region and the Upper Missouri but doesn’t give us a definitive geographical line where the change begins.
Roosevelt further describes regional differences in not only the wolves themselves but the coyotes and the difficulty that existed in telling them apart.
The grizzled, gray, and brown often have precisely the coat of the coyote. The difference in size among wolves of different localities, and even of the same locality, is quite remarkable, and so, curiously enough, is the difference in the size of the teeth, in some cases even when the body of one wolf is as big as that of another. I have seen wolves from Texas and New Mexico which were undersized, slim animals with rather small tusks, in no way to be compared to the long-toothed giants of their race that dwell in the heavily timbered mountains of the Northwest and in the far North.
In his writings, Roosevelt describes what is commonly referred to as the “buffalo wolf”, at one time extremely common and plentiful. He has described this wolf as being more like a coyote as well as giving us a hint as to where it was often found.
Formerly wolves were incredibly abundant in certain parts of the country, notably on the great plains, where they were known as buffalo wolves, and were regular attendants on the great herds of the bison. Every traveler[sic] and hunter of the old days knew them as among the most common sights of the plains, and they followed the hunting parties and emigrant trains for the sake of the scraps left in camp. Now, however, there is no district in which they are really abundant. The wolfers, or professional wolf-hunters, who killed them by poisoning for the sake of their fur, and the cattlemen, who likewise killed them by poisoning because of their raids on the herds, have doubtless been the chief instruments in working their decimation on the plains. In the ‘70’s, and even in the early ‘80’s, many tens of thousands of wolves were killed by the wolfers in Montana and northern Wyoming and western Dakota.
Taken in complete context of his writings, it appears that this buffalo wolf was found in Northern Wyoming, through into the Western Dakotas and parts of Montana. He has already told us that the larger gray wolf was found in the Upper Columbia and Upper Missouri Rivers. If that’s true then it would seem that the smaller buffalo wolf could be found in Southwestern Montana and stretching across parts of Central and Southern Montana and south into Northern Wyoming.
Roosevelt sheds light on some of the first observations of wolves’ migration or changing of its habitat.
[T]he beasts now and then change their abodes, and appear in numbers in places where they have been scarce for a long period. In the present winter of 1892-‘93 big wolves are more plentiful in the neighborhood of my ranch than they have been for ten years, and have worked some havoc among the cattle and young horses. The cowboys have been carrying on the usual vindictive campaign against them; a number have been poisoned, and a number of others have fallen victims to their greediness, the cowboys surprising them when gorged to repletion on the carcass of a colt or calf, and, in consequence, unable to run, so that they are easily ridden down, roped, and then dragged to death.
We can assume Roosevelt is referring to his ranch in what is now North Dakota.
What I find extremely interesting in Roosevelt’s writing is his puzzlement over what happened to the wolves.
Yet even the slaughter wrought by man in certain localities does not seem adequate to explain the scarcity or extinction of wolves, throughout the country at large. In most places they are not followed any more eagerly than are the other large beasts of prey, and they are usually followed with less success. Of all animals the wolf is the shyest and hardest to slay. It is almost or quite as difficult to still-hunt as the cougar, and is far more difficult to kill with hounds, traps, or poison; yet it scarcely holds its own as well as the great cat, and it does not begin to hold its own as well as the bear, a beast certainly never more readily killed, and one which produces fewer young at a birth. Throughout the East the black bear is common in many localities from which the wolf has vanished completely. It at present exists in very scanty numbers in northern Maine and the Adirondacks; is almost or quite extinct in Pennsylvania; lingers here and there in the mountains from West Virginia to east Tennessee, and is found in Florida; but is everywhere less abundant than the bear. It is possible that this destruction of the wolves is due to some disease among them, perhaps to hydrophobia, a terrible malady from which it is known that they suffer greatly at times. Perhaps the bear is helped by its habit of hibernating, which frees it from most dangers during winter; but this cannot be the complete explanation, for in the South it does not hibernate, and yet holds its own as well as in the North. What makes it all the more curious that the American wolf should disappear sooner than the bear is that the reverse is the case with the allied species of Europe, where the bear is much sooner killed out of the land.
Roosevelt goes on for another paragraph and more trying to make sense as to what happened to the wolf. Perhaps some of it is his own guilt for having participated, to some degree anyway, with the killing of wolves for sport and to protect his own property. Some would say Roosevelt was a man of greater conviction and would have readily admitted his wrongs. Perhaps Mr. Roosevelt logged some of our earliest observations of the normal and natural cycles of climate change as well as the cruelties of Mother Nature.
As part of his continued striving for an explanation of what happened to the wolves, Roosevelt again offers us a contrasting description of wolves found here in the U.S. as well as in Europe.
The difference even among the wolves of different sections of our own country is very notable. It may be true that the species as a whole is rather weaker and less ferocious than the European wolf; but it is certainly not true of the wolves of certain localities. The great timber wolf of the central and northern chains of the Rockies and coast ranges is in every way a more formidable creature than the buffalo wolf of the plains, although they intergrade. The skins and skulls of the wolves of north-western Montana and Washington which I have seen were quite as large and showed quite as stout claws and teeth as the skins and skulls of Russian and Scandinavian wolves, and I believe that these great timber wolves are in every way as formidable as their Old World kinsfolk. However, they live where they come in contact with a population of rifle-bearing frontier hunters, who are very different from European peasants or Asiatic tribesmen; and they have, even when most hungry, a wholesome dread of human beings. Yet I doubt if an unarmed man would be entirely safe should he, while alone in the forest in mid-winter encounter a fair-sized pack of ravenously hungry timber wolves.
A full-grown dog-wolf of the northern Rockies, in exceptional instances, reaches a height of thirty-two inches and a weight of 130 pounds; a big buffalo wolf of the upper Missouri stands thirty or thirty-one inches at the shoulder and weighs about 110 pounds. A Texas wolf may not reach over eighty pounds. The bitch-wolves are smaller; and moreover there is often great variation even in the wolves of closely neighboring localities.
Even in the late 1800s Teddy Roosevelt realized that wolves in the U.S. ran scared of humans because we had guns and could fight back and that in Europe and Russia, either governments forbade owning guns or the poor peasants couldn’t afford one or the ammunition to put in it. Because of this it is thought by some that European wolves were a more vicious and powerful animal.
Again, Roosevelt tries to define his line of demarcation of where the smaller wolves and the larger wolves lived. He describes the great timber wolf as living in “central and northern chains of the Rockies”.
In his effort to describe the actions and reactions of the various wolves he encountered, Roosevelt tells us that the smaller wolves rarely took on large prey. He even went so far as to say that unless emboldened by being in large packs, the wolves picked on mostly smaller prey or even the very young or sickly.
We hear much of how the wolf only kills the weak and sickly of their prey and we can see that Roosevelt thought much the same way except that of the bigger “timber” wolf or Canadian wolf. He goes to length in telling us that this wolf will readily attack and kill the largest of game animals, mostly the wild and domestic ungulates.
The big timber wolves of the northern Rocky Mountains attack every four-footed beast to be found where they live. They are far from contenting themselves with hunting deer and snapping up the pigs and sheep of the farm. When the weather gets cold and food scarce they band together in small parties, perhaps of four or five individuals, and then assail anything, even a bear or a panther. A bull elk or bull moose, when on its guard, makes a most dangerous fight; but a single wolf will frequently master the cow of either animal, as well as domestic cattle and horses. In attacking such large game, however, the wolves like to act in concert, one springing at the animal’s head, and attracting its attention, while the other hamstrings it. Nevertheless, one such big wolf will kill an ordinary horse. A man I knew, who was engaged in packing into the Coeur d’Alenes, once witnessed such a feat on the part of a wolf.
But we still don’t have a real clear “line of demarcation” of where the bigger Canadian or timber wolf roamed historically during the early years. From what Roosevelt tells us, the wolves of both larger and smaller species do odd things from time to time and migrate great distances. He reports that wolves that normally are found in one area might show up for certain periods of time and then disappear.
If we refer back to the Smithsonian article, it states that they believe the range lines between wolf species is more of a natural boundary determined as much by where the wolf is at any one moment in time. Smithsonian even hints that the migration of the larger Canadian wolf into areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming could have been the result of the massive kill offs of the smaller “prairie” or “buffalo” wolf.
Further investigation finds that in the early 1800s, Dr. Richardson, traveling in many expeditions ranging from the upper plains and into Canada and west toward the Rocky Mountains, recorded his observations of wolves which I find is not contradictory to that of Teddy Roosevelt.
However his writings can’t give us a clear “line of demarcation” but it does support Roosevelt’s theory that the larger Canadian wolf was mostly found in Canada, the upper reaches of the Northern Rockies including the Upper Columbia River and areas north and west of the Upper Missouri River.
Dr. Richardson’s physical descriptions of the wolves he encountered mirrored those of Roosevelt. Richardson describes the majority of wolves found in his travels as being of the smaller variety, referred to as the prairie or brown wolf. In describing these very “common” wolves, Richardson recalls, “Their foot-marks may be seen by the side of every stream, ………They are very numerous on the sandy plains, which lying to the eastward of the Rocky Mountains, extend from the sources of the Peace and Saskatchewan Rivers towards the Missouri.”
Richardson further describes these wolves as not having much interest in attacking larger animals and in actuality pay little attention to the men around them until man began killing them. He does however describe one instance in which he witnessed a single wolf take down a reindeer. Richardson in describing his expeditions said he ventured beyond 30 degrees of Latitude. In his recalling the lone wolf kill he says he was on “Barren-grounds through which the Coppermine River flows“. He describes the wolf as being large and white.
Dr. Charles E. Kay, Utah State University, offers us, “An Alternative Interpretation of the Historical Evidence Relating to the Abundance of Wolves in the Yellowstone Ecosystem”. In setting the tone for his presentation he says this:
The plan to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone is predicated, in part, by the premise that large numbers of wolves inhabited that ecosystem before the National Park Service eliminated them from the park. According to some, wolves were a relatively common sight in Yellowstone when it was declared the United States’ first national park in 1872. To test this assertion, I conducted a continuous-time analysis of first-person journals written by people who explored Yellowstone between 1835 and 1876. During that period, 20 different parties spent a total of 765 days traveling through the Yellowstone Ecosystem, yet no reliable observer reported seeing or killing a single wolf, and on only three occasions did explorers report hearing wolves howl. The available historic journals do not suggest that wolves were common in Yellowstone during the 1835-1876 period. Those same journals indicate that ungulates were also rarely encountered in the park. Bison were reportedly only seen three times (none of which were in the park) and elk were seen on only 42 occasions, or an average of one elk observation per party in 18 days. The fact that a number of parties broke into small groups and spread out to hunt makes these observation rates all the more meager. Moreover, while the explorers were in Yellowstone, their journals contained 45 references to a lack of game or a shortage of food. Historically, Yellowstone contained few ungulates, and accordingly, wolves were rare. An Aboriginal Overkill hypothesis is presented to account for the observed rarity of ungulates and wolves.
Dr. Kay further states in his conclusions that given the evidence available wolves were never common in Yellowstone history.
From this information, we then would have to wonder how far and wide did this lack of commonality of wolves and ungulates beyond the “Yellowstone Ecosystem” go? In the accounts shared above, none of the explorers specifically talked of the Yellowstone area and yet all related to us that wolves were very much a common site.
It might be safe to conclude that we really don’t know where the infamous “line of demarcation” Teddy Roosevelt spoke of, is. What we can conclude is that the “larger” wolf or Canadian wolf evolved into its characteristics in order to withstand the harsh environment. It appears their size became necessary to be able to kill the larger ungulates to survive. Roosevelt, Richardson and Smithsonian all elude to the fact that the smaller buffalo or prairie wolf was common everywhere, mostly south of the Canadian border and abundantly on the Great Plains. But they all indicate that the larger timber wolf was an animal everyone feared.
If it was such that the majority of areas where the Canadian gray wolf was artificially reintroduced never historically supported the larger wolf, and in the case of Dr. Kay’s assertion that no wolves were common in Yellowstone, we may be creating a huge disservice to our ecosystems. If the larger Canadian wolf was not prevalent in Central Idaho, Southwestern Montana and the Yellowstone area, logic would lead us to believe the habitat couldn’t support them.
With the hard work and tons of money put into restoring ungulate herds from past mismanagement, what are we doing that we are bringing in a wolf that might not even be native and letting it destroy our ungulate herds? It’s irresponsible insanity!
A common factor found in discussions from Roosevelt and Richardson is that both spoke readily about interbreeding of domestic dogs with wild wolves. Both Native American Indians and the white settlers used dogs for hunting. In dealing with wolves they looked to breed a dog that could stand up to the challenges of a wolf.
We also recently learned that black wolves are a result of interbreeding of domestic dogs with wolves, something that further supports the theory that few if any “native” wolves or “pure” wolves even exist. They will all interbreed and man-assisted inbreeding took place to produce hunting and fighting dogs.
In conclusion I think it’s important that we fully understand the history of the wolf in this country. If we are going to spend millions of dollars in attempts to protect and preserve species, we better make sure we are doing it right or we might just end up with a bigger mess than when we started.
I once discovered a friend of mine had dug up most of his large shrubbery around his house and discarded it in the nearby river. I asked him why he did that and he said he didn’t really think it would hurt anything. I told him my Daddy taught me many years ago that if it didn’t come from there, you have no business putting it there.